Killing Afghan Civilians: A Little Context

Much attention has been paid to the numbers of US troops being killed in Afghanistan this year – surpassing the numbers killed in Iraq despite there being about a third as many troops in Afghanistan as in Iraq. But what of the Afghans killed?

The Taliban and the US/NATO forces were competing with one another this year for who could kill more civilians. Members of the Taliban use suicide bombers as weapons, while US/NATO forces use bombs, and in some cases, snipers and grenades. Wikipedia, using a variety of reliable sources (Associated Press, United Nations, Human Rights Watch, etc), has tallied that since the start of the war, “insurgent actions” have resulted in 2,016 – 2,449 direct deaths, while “US-led military actions” have led to 3,922 – 4,841 direct deaths.

As analyst and Afghanistan expert Conn Hallinan pointed out in an interview I did with him this morning on Uprising, all those killed by the Taliban who are not US/NATO troops are assumed to be civilians. While those killed by US/NATO forces are always assumed to be “insurgents” unless proven otherwise. This implies that the civilian death toll at US/NATO hands is likely a vast underestimate.

Still, it is worth it to extrapolate the number of deaths caused by the US and NATO to numbers that Americans can relate to. Using the low end of the range mentioned above – 3,922 deaths at the hands of US-led military efforts – that number is proportionally equivalent to a foreign-led military operation killing about 37,000 civilians in a country the size of the US over the past seven years.

Another aspect of the tally above is that the US-led military actions have led to twice as many deaths as the Taliban over seven years! Using deaths alone as a measurement of the impact of the two occupations – a Taliban occupation is less dangerous for the average Afghan. If accounting for the fact that the Taliban’s killings are in response to the US/NATO occupation, that’s nearly 8000 Afghans killed directly or indirectly as a result of a Western occupation for the past seven years.

However, the Taliban are no friends of Afghanistan (and neither are the warlords in parliament for that matter). While they may enjoy some popular support that is increasing, their rule in the 1990s was among the worst periods for Afghan people. If more Afghans are choosing the Taliban today, it is as the lesser of two evils, rather than a desire to see this fundamentalist extremist regime in power – the nation-wide jubilation at the Taliban’s defeat in 2001 is a testament to their real unpopularity.

Still, it is worth it to examine the impact of the US/NATO occupation, to counter the myth that “we aren’t doing enough in Afghanistan.” We’re doing enough alright – in fact, we’re doing far too much. And it’s time we stopped.

Detestable Murderers and Scumbags: Canada in Afghanistan

by Justin Podur and Sonali Kolhatkar; Briarpatch; December 05, 2005

ON JULY 11, 2005, WITH great nuance and tact, Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff General Hillier described the forces arrayed against the NATO mission in Afghanistan: “These are detestable murderers and scumbags, I’ll tell you that right up front. They detest our freedoms, they detest our society, they detest our liberties.”

This was not Canadian officialdom’s typical line on operations abroad. Canada’s Haiti mission, for example, is framed in terms of “helping” Haitians with democracy. Although the Prime Minister’s Special Advisor on Haiti, Denis Coderre, occasionally uses violent language about “terrorists” (following the normal practice of presenting such labels without evidence) to describe Haiti’s ousted Lavalas government, for the most part Canada’s foreign policy is presented to the public as “peacekeeping,” helping those “failed states” to build “capacity.” Canadian military operations are likewise presented as somehow peaceable.

Hillier was explicitly trying to dispel this image, and not merely with the tactics of demonization (“detestable scumbags”), fear and racism (“they detest our freedoms”), and repetition (“they detest our liberties”). Hillier also wanted to dispel perceptions of the Canadian military as a peaceable, humanitarian force in world affairs: “We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people.”

Hillier continued the fear campaign: “Osama bin Laden, some time ago, indicated Canada was a target,” he said on Canadian TV. “As a responsible citizen of the world, we have been involved in the campaign against terrorism, and, of course, we try to bring stability to places that are unstable and therefore have acted as hotbeds for supporting terrorism. All that, I think, does make us a target.”

To use military language, Hillier created an “opening” that Major General Andrew Leslie exploited at a conference in August called “Handcuffs and Hand Grenades.” “Afghanistan is a 20-year venture,” he said, but “there are things worth fighting for. There are things worth dying for. There are things worth killing for.” Explaining why Canada had to be in Afghanistan for 20 years, Leslie said it was because “every time you kill an angry young man overseas, you’re creating 15 more who will come after you.”

It doesn’t take a military genius to recognize that Hillier and Leslie are making self-contradictory statements. If every time Canada kills someone overseas it’s creating 15 “angry young men,” does that make those 15 people “detestable scumbags?” If killing is so incredibly counterproductive, does it make sense to proudly announce that “our job is to be able to kill people?” And if every killing of these “detestable scumbags” creates 15 more enemies, should that really be considered a goal “worth killing for?”

Hillier and Leslie’s comments can be understood as media operations intended to legitimize a more aggressive military role for Canada in the world. That their speeches sound like warmed-over propaganda scripts of American neoconservatives should not be surprising, since the US is the only possible contemporary model Canada could have for aggressive militarism. But the comments by the generals are more aggressive than Canada’s official foreign policy doctrine. That doctrine was more systematically expounded by Canada’s Foreign Minister Bill Graham in a speech in September on Canada’s Afghan Mission.

In that speech, Graham described the ideology motivating Canada’s more aggressive posture. The idea is that there are “failed states” from which danger “leaks out” into other areas. Afghanistan fits into this scheme as a country with an “unfortunate history of war and misrule… culminating in the rule of the Taliban and their support for al-Qaeda and their attack on New York.”

While there may seem to be a large space between Graham’s “helping” approach and Hillier/Leslie’s “kill people” approach, Canada’s real foreign policy path is actually rather narrow: it involves supporting and legitimizing US foreign policy, whether through “failed state” rhetoric, military support, or profitable arms manufacturing. Canada’s Afghan mission fits the bill on all counts.

Canada in Afghanistan

IN 2002, CANADA sent 800 soldiers to Kandahar to join operations with the United States. In April of that year, Canada took its worst casualties in the mission when four Canadians were killed by bombs from a US F-16.

According to Graham, Canada then “spearheaded the effort to have NATO take over the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul” from the United Nations. Today ISAF has 8,000 troops from 35 countries, with Canada contributing some 2,600 troops. In August 2005, Canada sent another 250 troops to Kandahar, along with officials from the Canadian International Development Agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Foreign Affairs. In February 2006, Canada will be adding a headquarters in Kandahar, with 350 troops commanding the international force and an addition 1,000 troops as a one-year task force.

Given that Canada has roughly the same population as Afghanistan and very limited military resources, the Afghanistan deployment is a major foreign policy effort.

NATO’s Real Mission

ISAF WAS TAKEN OVER by NATO in August 2003, in its first ever mission outside the Euro-Atlantic region. ISAF was initially established by the United Nations to ostensibly provide security in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, but its greatest failure was that it was restricted to the capital, Kabul, because of strong pressure from the US. In rural provinces, which comprise the majority of Afghanistan, peacekeeping troops could have made a huge difference in bringing order. Instead, these areas are overrun by US backed militias, warlords, local commanders, and US troops engaged in their “hunt” for Al Qaeda and Taliban. US troops collaborate directly with local authoritarian warlords, rewarding them with weapons and aid in exchange for “intelligence” on Al Qaeda and Taliban.

As a result, since the fall of the Taliban, the country has become a progressively more dangerous place. This year, more US soldiers were killed in Afghanistan than in any previous year, and warlords are more entrenched than ever. Meanwhile, according to United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) estimates, the amount of land dedicated to opium poppy cultivation has risen to up to eight and a half times the amount for 2001. If ISAF’s real goal was peacekeeping, US actions have directly hindered that goal. But perhaps “peacekeeping” was never the mission of ISAF.

When asked by one of this article’s co-authors, Sonali Kolhatkar, what ISAF does on an on-going basis, NATO/ISAF spokesperson Major Karen Tissot Van Patot (a Canadian), stationed in Kabul, said that ISAF’s goal is to “provide a secure and stable environment.” When pressed for details, she explained that in Kabul, where ISAF’s headquarters is located, ISAF and the Afghan central government work closely: “We work together… [we provide] whatever they need. Whatever they ask for…. We’re here at the behest of the government to provide them with assistance.”

Given that Hamid Karzai, the head of the new Afghan government, was propelled into power by the US, and remains protected by US forces, it’s fair to conclude that NATO is in Afghanistan at the behest of the US government. This includes strategically providing the Karzai government with security for the US-designed nation-wide presidential and parliamentary elections which attracted international media attention.

The real goal is not peacekeeping, but rather the illusion of peacekeeping so as to make the installation of a US-friendly regime palatable to Afghanis. ISAF’s intense propaganda efforts attest to this. Kabul city sports huge billboards advertising ISAF’s contributions to the Afghan people. ISAF also runs radio and TV stations in the local languages to highlight the benevolence of the foreign troops. At the heart of NATO’s job as ISAF is an effort to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people. This benefits all Western forces present, including the US.

NATO’s main propaganda effort is in the form of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which are groups of soldiers engaged in a strange mix of providing security, carrying out small reconstruction and humanitarian projects, and eliciting intelligence information. US troops pioneered the use of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and NATO forces are following suit. In response to years of calls from aid agencies, human rights groups, and even the Karzai government, ISAF began expanding its mandate outside Kabul. But instead of real peacekeeping – disarmament, protecting civilians from armed groups, etc. – the expansion was done through the use of Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Today, ISAF has ten such teams in various Afghan provinces.

The aid provided by Provincial Reconstruction Teams is minuscule compared to the nation’s needs, and far more expensive than that provided by aid agencies. Ultimately, the main goal of Provincial Reconstruction Teams is to impress upon the Afghans that Western forces are there to help them through delivery of food, construction of schools, wells, etc. Meanwhile, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams have angered many aid agencies who bitterly complain that mixing military and humanitarian projects jeopardizes aid workers, and holds the receiving population hostage to military demands. InterAction, a coalition of 159 organizations including Doctors Without Borders, CARE, and Oxfam America “does not believe the military members of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams should be engaged in humanitarian and reconstruction activities.”

Ultimately, NATO (and Canadian) forces serve US interests in Afghanistan. NATO has had to re-invent itself to suit US needs, and create a role for itself in a post-Cold War world. In October 2001, NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson declared his hope that NATO would be part of whatever response the US decided upon after 9-11: “We stand together. Europe and North America are one single security space…the events of September 11 have not invalidated NATO’s pre-September agenda. If anything, they have reinforced the logic of that agenda…if the US Congress asks the Europeans “what have you done for me lately?” – we should be ready to give a decent answer.

Afghanistan Today

IF THE UNITED States justifies its international aggression in terms of its own national interests and security (as Hillier and Leslie were trying to do for Canada), Canada’s politicians prefer to suggest that the real beneficiaries of our military maneuvers are in the countries targeted for intervention. Bill Graham expressed it this way: “When I hear voices who call for the withdrawal of our troops, who suggest that we are engaged there in a war against Islam, as a recent visiting British politician suggested, I say: Let them talk to the Afghans, Afghans who are Muslims themselves, Afghans who want us there to help them transform their country and allow them to live decent lives; to allow them to conduct fair and democratic elections free from fear and intimidation.”

‘Let them talk to the Afghans’, indeed. Doing so might yield different prescriptions than Graham’s, however.

In 2004, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), a government-funded agency, conducted a nationwide survey of the Afghan people. Their results were published in a report entitled “A Call for Justice,” which showed that a majority of Afghans consider themselves victims of war, whether at the hands of the Mujahadeen, the Taliban, and/or the Soviet Union, and want an end to war, and justice for war crimes. Western governments like Canada could provide constructive help to the Afghan people to bring war criminals and their benefactors to justice. The trouble is that the main benefactors are the US and its allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, who provided weapons, training, and funding for the war criminals.

Another strong desire among Afghans is nation-wide disarmament. In 2004, Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRAC), a coalition of humanitarian organizations, published a report based on another survey called “Take the Guns Away.” When asked what was the most important thing to do to improve security in Afghanistan, 65 percent of Afghans surveyed said disarmament. This number was much higher – 87 percent – in the province of Mazar-e-Sharif where US-backed warlords often clashed. Western nations could fully fund disarmament projects in Afghanistan. Instead, highly selective and politicized disarmament has taken place, leaving intact most of the privately-run warlord militias. Full disarmament would run counter to the US practice of condoning arms proliferation at best, and at worst, actually engaging in arms proliferation.

The most frequently mentioned human rights desired by respondents of the HRRAC survey included “ethnic, religious and gender equality; political rights such as the right to participate in free and fair elections; and the right to education.” Even though the Bush administration often cites that millions of Afghan girls are now attending school, there are very few schools in rural areas, and those that are in operation have curriculums limited to Islamic studies, reminiscent of Taliban-era education for boys. RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, has been fighting for women’s rights for decades. Their schools, which teach a balanced curriculum based on gender, ethnic and religious tolerance, and women’s rights, are facing closure due to lack of funds. Western nations could greatly benefit Afghanistan by fully funding schools designed and led by Afghan women. To date, only a small fraction of aid to Afghanistan goes toward education.

Much is made of women’s rights after the fall of the Taliban. It is indeed true that some women, particularly in Kabul, enjoy greater freedom to appear in public, dress the way they want, and have the right to housing, jobs, education, and healthcare. However, for millions of Afghan women outside Kabul this means very little. A woman in a rural province had no education, healthcare, or employment before the Taliban came to power. She then had those things legally denied to her by the Taliban. After the fall of the Taliban, she still has no education, healthcare, or employment, even though she has legal rights. For all practical purposes, her life is no different compared to before or during the Taliban. Western nations could truly support Afghan women’s rights by moving beyond token, high-profile projects, and instead funding easily accessible education, healthcare and jobs for all women in Afghanistan. These projects should be designed and run by Afghan women, who best understand what they need.

The largest segment of Afghanistan’s economy is based on the drug trade, revived by US-backed warlords and regional commanders. Instead of criminalizing poor farmers for growing poppies, Western nations could help Afghans reduce their dependency on a drug economy by providing full compensation to farmers who have gone into debt to grow and harvest opium. Additionally, farmers could be assisted with alternative and sustainable farming that would benefit their families and their country.

The problem, of course, is that focusing on constructive projects such as those mentioned above would benefit only the Afghans, and not US, Canadian, or NATO interests. They would strengthen the people of Afghanistan and enrich their democratic development, while weakening the power of US and Afghan warlords.

Why is Canada involved?

CANADA’S NEW FOREIGN policy doctrine of “responsibility to protect” the people of “failed states” misplaces the emphasis. The doctrine suggests that the reasons for Canada’s intervention are to be found in the countries in which we intervene: Afghanistan suffered from “misrule,” Haiti is a “failed state.” The true reasons for Canada’s interventions, rather, is to be found in the relationship between Canada and the United States.

During the US invasion and occupation of Vietnam, Canadian corporations profited by supplying the American military, and Canadian diplomats ran interference for the US in the “International Control Commission,” a “neutral” body that was supposed to monitor the conflict between the US and the Vietnamese. Then, as now, Canada’s image as more multilateral, less militaristic and imperialistic, was a useful counterpoint to the aggressive posture of the US. Canada could use its good reputation to play the “good cop” to the US “bad cop,” thus providing tactical support in accomplishing US foreign policy goals.

The same relationship holds today. Canada presents itself as a friend to those countries it is intervening in, with a “3-D approach” (defence, diplomacy, and development assistance) as an option over the more unilateral and aggressive approach of the US. If, as a consequence, Canadian corporations like Bell win a one billion dollar contract with the US military to supply helicopters, or CAE wins a $20 million contract to supply combat simulation technology, perhaps that is just another “dimension” to be added to the 3-D approach.

Because the real reasons for intervention are not genuine help and solidarity, Canada’s deployment in Afghanistan has little relationship to what the people of that country actually need. Instead, under the guise of helping Afghanistan, Canada is actually providing a kind face to US contravention of the laws of war. In spite of mountains of evidence exposing US torture and murder of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan (never mind Canada’s own experience with its troops torturing a youth to death in Somalia in the 1990s), Canadian troops are capturing people and handing them over to the US in Afghanistan. The US, the “detainee authority” in Afghanistan, defines people it captures as “unlawful combatants” and denies them Geneva Convention protections. If pronouncements by Rumsfeld or Bush about “hating our freedom” found their Canadian echo in Hillier and Leslie, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s comment about the Geneva Conventions being “quaint” found its Canadian echo in Brigadier General Mike Ward, who in September 2005 talked to the Canadian Press about how Canadian forces have killed and captured Afghanis in coordination with the US. On the US record of torture of detainees and the use of the “unlawful combatant” label to justify contravening the Geneva Conventions, Ward said, “It’s the fact of the treatment that we specifically get into detail about, not whether in fact their status is identified as ‘prisoner of war’ or ‘unlawful combatant.’”

Where the US military leads in the “war on terror,” Canada follows. The Canadian engagement in Afghanistan enables Canada to be a useful tool of American imperialism, a junior member of the “winning team.” The price of accommodation with empire is high for all involved. Those whose sovereignty is violated get the worst of it, facing hunger, disease, bombs, torture, and death. But for the accomplices, there is a steady diet of fear and racism, as well as the erosion of democracy, ethics, and even basic logic. That Canada is experiencing such erosion is evidenced by Major General Leslie being able to hold up a claim that killing young men overseas is worth dying for.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the co-Director of the Afghan Women’s Mission and the host/producer of Uprising, which airs Monday-Friday on KPFK, Pacifica radio in Los Angeles. She visited Afghanistan in February 2005, and has co-authored a book about US policy in Afghanistan due out in Spring 2006.

Justin Podur is a writer and editor at ZNet. He has reported from Haiti, Venezuela, Colombia, Israel/Palestine, and other countries, and is based in Toronto.

Giving Democracy a Bad Name

Afghanistan’s Parliamentary Elections

Published in Foreign Policy In Focus on September 16, 2005

by Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls

The United States has supposedly created new “democracies” in Afghanistan and Iraq, but these endeavors give democracy a bad name. Sure, the two countries have some ingredients of representative democracy, such as elected officials and a constitution. But both countries are still beset by grinding poverty, insurgencies, and entrenched militia forces that make the exercise of democracy either impractical or dangerous. Both countries have high numbers of foreign troops occupying their land and terrorizing the population while hunting “terrorists” And both countries’ governments answer to their respective U.S. ambassador on most issues. In the midst of such a violent and coercive environment, Afghans are pressing ahead with the latest in a series of “democratic” exercises imposed by the United States: the first Afghan parliamentary elections in four decades will take place this Sunday, September 18. Even though many Afghans hope that the elections will empower them to end their troubles, the fear is that the elections will probably be as undemocratic in practice as every other U.S.-inflicted Afghan institution.

Entrenching Warlord Rule?

Warlords, most of whom have past or present U.S. backing, still rule much of the countryside and will play a big role in the elections. A survey by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRAC) found that a majority of Afghans are fearful that the elections will be used by the “commanders,” to cement their power. One respondent said, “The only concern that we have is commanders’ misuse of their power.”1 According to election rules, any individuals commanding private armies are to be disqualified. In July, the Electoral Complaints Commission (EEC) drew up a list of 208 “blacklisted” candidates who had ties to illegal armed groups. As of this week, only 45 lower profile candidates have actually been disqualified from running. Meanwhile, warlords like Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf, whose criminal past has been documented by groups like Human Rights Watch, are openly running for seats in the Parliament. So are former Taliban officials, like the ex- deputy interior minister Mullah Khaksar.

U.S.-backed president Hamid Karzai has defended the right of warlords to run for parliament, in the interests of “national reconciliation.” This is just the latest in a series of concessions that Karzai has made to warlords. Last October, he ran for president on an ostensibly anti-warlord platform, saying, “Private militias are the country’s greatest danger.” To back up his rhetoric, Karzai sacked two warlords in his cabinet and pretended to fire Ismail Khan by removing him from the post of governor of Herat. After he won the elections, Karzai appointed Khan Minister of Energy, and brought in the feared warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, former Defense Minister and presidential candidate, as Afghanistan’s Army Chief of Staff. U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (now ambassador to Iraq) endorsed Karzai’s decision, commenting in March that the “decision to give a role to … regional strongmen is a wise policy.” In addition, Karzai’s government has promised former Taliban fighters immunity from prosecution for war crimes. Under this program, initiated with the approval of the United States, even Mullah Omar, the notorious Taliban chief, would be granted immunity if he recants his ways.2

Widespread Violence

Besides the repression of entrenched warlords, violence carried out by “remnants” of the Taliban, al-Qaida, or other Afghan formations, as well as U.S. soldiers, is making it harder for Afghans to exercise their democratic rights. More than 1,000 people, including civilians, have been killed in Afghanistan this year alone. It has been the bloodiest year for the U.S. military, with 65 soldiers killed since January 2005. In addition to the U.S. and international troops, anti-government groups have targeted moderate Islamic clerics, government officials, foreign aid workers, and people involved with the upcoming elections. Citizens have been killed for carrying voter registration cards, electoral workers have been attacked, and candidates, particularly women, have received death threats. A total of 6 candidates and 4 election workers have been killed.

Although much of the violence is an attempt to disrupt elections, the U.S. military attributes this year’s dramatic increase in fatalities partly to its own violent provocation. According to the magazine Stars and Stripes, “the recent surge in fighting could be attributed more to American aggressiveness than anything al-Qaida is doing.” U.S. troops have conducted “a series of operations in areas where U.S. presence has been minimal or nonexistent” to try to provoke attacks on themselves and thereby catch “terrorists” in the act. “I think we’re initiating the overwhelming majority of the actions,” said Brigadier-General James Champion. The attackers “would not be firing the first shots if we weren’t in the area.”3

The U.S. troop presence is something a truly democratic Afghanistan would surely eliminate or curtail. In July, over 1,000 demonstrators outside the main U.S. base at Bagram called for an end to arbitrary house break-ins and arrests and for treating Afghans with more dignity. This was the largest protest since a wave of anti-U.S. demonstrations across the country in May led to 16 deaths. During his May 2005 visit to the United States, President Karzai requested more Afghan control over U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, the handing over of Afghan prisoners, and the end of home searches without government permission, all of which were rejected. U.S. president George W. Bush told Karzai, “Of course, our troops will respond to U.S. commanders.”

A recent report by the Kabul-based Afghanistan Justice Project cited “grave abuses” by U.S. troops, “many of them of the same sort used by their counterparts in the communist, mujahidin, and Taliban regimes that preceded them.” These include “crude and brutal” methods of torture that have sometimes led to death and the use of secret detention facilities that facilitate torture; and unacknowledged detentions that are tantamount to “disappearances.” Particularly relevant to the parliamentary elections, the report concludes that “U.S. forces have jeopardized prospects for establishing stable and accountable institutions in Afghanistan, have undermined the security of the Afghan people … and have reinforced a pattern of impunity that undermines the legitimacy of the political process.”4

What Will Change?

Given current conditions, many analysts are suggesting that the September 18 elections will probably result in very little change. There will be 5,800 candidates running for 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People), and 34 representatives on provincial councils. Rules set up by Karzai, with the approval of the United States, allow political parties, but disallow the party affiliations of candidates to be printed on electoral ballots. In other words, 5,800 candidates are running as independents. Joanna Nathan of the International Crisis Group predicts that the assembly will be a “weak and fractured, possibly even paralyzed body.” Barnett Rubin of New York University says that the elections won’t make much of a difference because, “Until Afghanistan has a functioning, legal economy and basic institutions, there’s nothing really for a parliament to do except act as a kind of puppet platform for people’s views.”

Even so, about half the Afghan population has registered to vote and expects important changes to come from these elections. The elections have the potential to be the most democratic events in Afghanistan since the budding of women’s, student, and leftist organizations in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, there is a slim possibility of the civilian, non-fundamentalist majority in Afghanistan gaining a measure of political power. Women have 68 seats reserved for them as per the new constitution, guaranteeing at least some non-patriarchal views in the assembly.5

In a recent trip to Afghanistan we interviewed Noorani, the editor of a weekly Kabul-based newspaper, Rozgharan, who described three groups that will be represented in the parliamentary elections: “Firstly, Karzai and his technocrats, another group belonging to Qanooni, Dostum, and Mohaqiq, [warlords] and the third: a group of intellectuals, who are unhappy with the failure of Karzai and the warlords.” He complained that the third group had no support from the world community. In addition, they have little economic power and are under threat from the warlords.

Among this third group, there are numerous parties organizing against fundamentalism and for social justice and democracy. The Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, for example, criticizes both Karzai and the warlords. We met with one of the party representatives, Wasay Engineer, who told us that his party has members in 25 of Afghanistan’s 35 provinces. The party’s platform is based on “women’s rights, democracy, and secular society, a disarming of the country, and freedom of the press.” Between 30 and 40% of its members are women. The Solidarity Party is putting up about 30 candidates for the Parliamentary elections “to show that there are some in Afghanistan who still work for the people.” Engineer says that the Solidarity Party is not alone—they are part of a forum of 16 anti-fundamentalist parties throughout the country.
We also met independent candidates. Malalai Joya and Qasimi represented the province of Farah at the Constitutional Loya Jirga in December 2003. Both live under threat to their lives because of their outspoken criticism of the warlords. Qasimi did not allow us to photograph him and uses a pseudonym to protect himself. He says he has been threatened many times by the government, police, and security forces.

Malalai Joya became famous overnight when she caused an uproar at the Constitutional Loya Jirga by denouncing fiercely the warlords who were present, saying they “turned our country into the nucleus of national and international wars … [They are] the most anti-women people in the society who brought our country to this state.” She told the assembly, “They should be taken to national and international court.” ( Los Angeles Times, December 23, 2003) Now Joya wears a burqa to disguise herself when she travels and has six full time security guards. Her house and office were attacked by armed men after her speech at the Constitutional meeting. But she has no intention of disappearing from public life, believing her activism will inspire others. In her office she posed for a photo in front of a poster with the following words: “If I arise, then you will arise, we will all arise.”

Washington likes to highlight its contributions to Afghanistan’s progress toward “democracy,” but U.S. actions in the name of democracy undermine real democracy-building. After having hopes of a fundamentalist-free government crushed many times over by Karzai, many ordinary Afghans consider the parliamentary elections their last chance to exercise some power over their lives. But many activists realize that their fight for justice will not end with elections. Malalai Joya promised us, “Whether I will be a member of parliament or not, I will continue my struggle while my enemies, meaning the enemies of the country, are alive and are working against the women and men of Afghanistan.”

End Notes:

  1. “Afghan Voters Worry ‘Guns and Money’ Will Affect Election,”, September 13, 2005.
  2. Paul McGeough, “ Old Ways Linger Beneath a Veil of Votes,” Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, September 10, 2005.
  3. Kent Harris, “Vicenza-based Troops in Afghanistan Aggressively Taking Fight to the Enemy,” Stars and Stripes, June 28, 2005.
  4. The Afghanistan Justice Project, Casting Shadows: War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, 1978-2001, July 2005.
  5. “Facts and figures about Afghanistan’s elections,” Reuters, September 12, 2005.

Sonali Kolhatkar and Jim Ingalls are co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit that works in solidarity with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). They visited Afghanistan in February 2005.

Katrina’s Fund Raising Frenzy: Too Much and Not Enough

Published on on September 11, 2005

As I was driving to work last week I scanned my radio dial, listening to the mostly commercial radio stations on Los Angeles’ FM spectrum. Within a few seconds of listening to each station (English and Spanish language alike), it was clear that everyone was fundraising for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Everyone. Having seen the victims up close and personal on their TV screens and in their newspapers, in frenzied tones, desperate to believe in the soothing salve of charity, eager to “take action” in face of so much suffering, it seems as though Americans have concluded that the only way to help a suffering people is through money, lots of it, more than you can afford, more than any one else deserves. Corporations, celebrities, right wing and left wing institutions, high school kids and cops are scrambling to fund-raise.

The Red Cross is reporting that it has already received more than half a billion dollars in donations for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, even more than was donated for last year’s Tsunami victims, and more than for the victims of September 11th 2001. This overwhelming support for the people of Louisiana and Mississippi is heart warming. But at the risk of seeming callous I ask, is it really wise to throw millions of dollars at charities? Without political action, will it really help the Katrina survivors? And how will other causes be affected?

It was the government’s responsibility to ensure that a hurricane wouldn’t result in this type of disaster. The government failed. It was the government’s responsibility to ensure that an emergency response to such a disaster would save as many lives as possible. The government failed. Now, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that all the survivors are taken care of, financially and other wise. It seems as though, by simply donating millions of dollars to certain large charities like the Red Cross we are assuming continued government failure. Those charities will need time and extra staff to even process all the money before they can begin distributing resources. Instead of the frenetic rush to raise money, should we not pour that energy into at least demanding that the government divert any and all resources from the Iraq war to the Katrina victims?

The donations would at best provide a salve, not a cure. Many Americans did not even know the extent to which poverty in Louisiana and Mississippi flourished along racial lines. Mindless fundraising is an easy way out of the guilt that we feel at the racist and classist conditions that poor blacks have been living in, and the disaster that they have now endured. If enough money is raised, Americans can go back to a numb existence of forgetting the injustices they have been forced to face these past few weeks.

Last week Bush used emergency powers to suspend the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act in the affected states. This means that contractors who rebuild the flooded areas using federal assistance can pay their workers less than the prevailing wage, thereby ensuring continued poverty and undercutting unions. It was precisely the poor population of New Orleans who could not afford to own cars that were stuck behind to suffer and die during the flooding. By suspending this law Bush ensures continued poverty among those who return to rebuild. Where is the public outcry demanding that our tax dollars enrich rather than impoverish the construction workers, likely to be residents of New Orleans?

A city that was already struggling against the forces of gentrification, it is likely that the “new” New Orleans will more rapidly become a commercial haven of casinos, mansions and corporate brand names. The political organizations that have vowed to fight these threats need our backing and dollars, perhaps even more than Red Cross, already flush with more cash than it can handle. Community Labor United is a coalition of labor and grassroots groups based in New Orleans who are expecting to fight overwhelming political pressure from government and corporations. They have set up a People’s Hurricane Fund that will be “directed and administered by New Orleanian evacuees.” Another worthy organization is the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a grassroots group struggling against racism, who are attempting to regroup their scattered staff and volunteers in order to continue their work.

In his recent piece for The Black Commentator, Glen Ford says, “Charity is fine. Rights are better.” What is needed in the coming weeks and months is serious political action to ensure that Katrina victims will have the right to return to their homes, have their homes rebuilt if necessary, have decent jobs and other resources. Will any of us participate in that fight once we are done emptying our bank accounts into the Red Cross? Or will we feel that we have done “enough” through our donations?

Most Americans will have given their fill of tax exempted donations to charities this year for the Katrina survivors. But while hundreds of thousands of the hurricane survivors have been displaced, how many of us think of the already-homeless in the US? In Los Angeles County alone there are almost 100,000 homeless people, most of whom rarely merit the attention of the media and the public. Local non-profits who provide services for the homeless will be hard hit this year with most donations being diverted to hurricane relief, and with “donor fatigue” setting in earlier than usual. Many non-profits offer services that the government fails to provide. Barely recovering from the impact of last year’s Tsunami donation frenzy, non-profits across the country who provide a safety-net for millions, will be denied grants, will cancel fundraisers, will accept losses in their direct mail campaigns, and will even have to close their doors.

But as many in the non-profit world have learned the hard way, fund raising without political action is never a solution. Rather than ensure the closure of grassroots organizations nationwide by diverting our personal financial resources to the ’cause of the moment,’ we need to become politically active and make demands on our government to ensure that the thousands of survivors of Katrina, and the millions of others who suffer daily from homelessness, starvation, poor education, poor healthcare, etc, get what they deserve. After all, it’s our tax money, our people, our government, and our right.

Sonali Kolhatkar is host and producer of Uprising, a popular prime-time radio program on KPFK, Pacifica Radio.


Catherine Saillant, “Local Charities Fear a Drop in Their Fundraising,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2005. – Glen Ford, “New Orleans Population has the Right of Return,”, September 8, 2005. – More information about Community Labor United can be found at . – People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond is online at

The Appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad to Iraq: Not About Oil

Published on ZNet on April 10th, 2005

Zalmay Khalilzad, currently George W. Bush’s special envoy and US ambassador to Afghanistan, will be transferred as ambassador to Iraq pending Senate confirmation. Contrary to popular belief on the left, the transfer has little to do with his being a past consultant for the oil company UNOCAL. A Village Voice blog by Jarrett Murphy (“Iraq Envoy’s Got Oil On His Resume”) makes the case that mainstream reportage on Khalilzad$(Bs (Bappointment ignored his UNOCAL employment$(Oas(B if the oil connection explained something about Khalilzad$(Bs (Bappointment. In a much more detailed piece, Larry Everest (“Zalmay Khalilzad: Empire Builder Moves to Iraq,” Revolutionary Worker #1273, April 3 2005), delves deeply into Khalilzad$(Bs (Bhistory. He brings up the oil connection too, but only as a secondary point to demonstrate Khalilzad$(Bs (Bwillingness to work with the fundamentalist and fascist Taliban. Everest makes the more important point that Khalilzad is a founding member of the Project for a New American Century and a major thinker in the neoconservative movement. In other words, a long-term aggressive quest for US hegemony motivates his every move. Still, Everest doesn’t really explain how those long-term goals might be achieved under Khalilzad, or what made Bush pick him. Everest states, “Khalilzad’s nomination…highlights both the centrality of Iraq to [the Bush] agenda and the US imperialists’ determination to press forward with their global plans.” That is, picking Khalilzad, a man who has helped define the neocon agenda, means Washington is standing firm on its current approach. This is certainly true, but there’s more to it than that. Power, conquest, and oil may fill his dreams, but his ideological bent was probably only a small part of the reason for Khalilzad$(Bs (Bappointment. Replacing outgoing ambassador John Negroponte with Khalilzad may represent a last-ditch attempt to deal with a rapidly evolving Iraq that is out of US control.

Zalmay Khalilzad has skills, which he demonstrated in Afghanistan, that make him an ideal choice to achieve US objectives in Iraq. First, he is smart enough to devise his own plans and carry them out to Bush satisfaction. In 2000 when the Taliban were still in power, over a year before he became special envoy to Afghanistan, Khalilzad wrote his own job description. His Washington Monthly piece with Daniel Byman reads in part, “The Clinton administration should appoint a high-level envoy for Afghanistan who can coordinate overall US policy. The envoy must have sufficient stature and access to ensure that he or she is taken seriously in foreign capitals and by local militias. Equally important, the special envoy must be able to shape Afghanistan policy within US bureaucracies.” He knew the complex dynamics of the situation and his article included a plan to remake Afghanistan into a more US-friendly state. After the post-9/11 decision was made to implement “regime change,” Khalilzad, by then a member of Condoleeza Rice’s National Security Council, was the only one around with a scheme already in writing.

Secondly, Khalilzad is a skilled diplomat, unlike previous post-Saddam US ambassadors to Iraq. The Financial Times (Apr 7, 2005) asserts that Khalilzad will bring a “penchant for political negotiation and Middle Eastern-style intrigue” to his Iraq post, and this has a kernel of truth to it. With the new Iraqi goverrnment forming along sectarian lines, taking advantage of the divisions and manipulating the outcome so that it benefits the US will require a good diplomat who appears conciliatory and engaging. To US policy makers, Khalilzad$(Bs (BAfghan heritage is probably considered an additional asset for such work, since he is $(Cfr(Bom the region$(D a(Bnd a Muslim. Could Washington be opting for subtlety and cleverness in managing its occupation of Iraq? Possibly. At any rate, Khalilzad would certainly use a different approach than the “heavy-handed style” of Bremer or the “behind the scenes approach” of Negroponte (FT).

Thirdly, and most frighteningly, Khalilzad knows how to work with fundamentalists, to compromise with them and convince them that their interests (anti-progressive, pro-state control of private life) are shared by the United States. In Afghanistan, Khalilzad worked under the Reagan administration to support Islamist armed factions to fight the occupying Soviet Union. Later, he urged the US under Clinton to “reengage” with Afghanistan under the Taliban. In the four post-Taliban “nation-building” exercises he has ensured that Northern Alliance warlords and other fundamentalists have been legitimized as cabinet ministers, court officials, and regional governors, and their wishes for religion-based government enshrined in the Constitution. Many of these men have a history just as bad as or worse than the Taliban. By giving them positions of power, Khalilzad has ignored the wishes of the majority of Afghans who would rather see them on trial (Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, “A Call for Justice” ). In addition, it was Khalilzad$(Bs (Bidea for the Karzai government to offer amnesty to the Taliban. Khalilzad calls this practice $(Cco(B-optation in exchange for cooperation.$(D T(Bhe Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) calls it a $(Ctr(Beasonable alliance against our nation.$(D

(BZalmay Khalilzad has never threatened fundamentalismÂ$(Bs (Bhold on Afghan politics. Among the most sorry to see Khalilzad leave his country is ultra-conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazil Hady Shinwari, the former head of a Pakistani madrassah (religious school), who Khalilzad helped to power. In an open letter to President Bush, Shinwari pleaded against Khalilzad$(Bs (Breassignment, saying Afghanistan needed the ambassador “now more than ever,” because “no one else can work as he has been doing.” A Taliban member in all but name, Shinwari has declared that adulterers should be stoned to death, the hands of thieves amputated, and consumers of alcohol given 80 lashes. He has attempted to ban women from singing or dancing in public and declared that, “women should observe Islamic veiling, meaning that they should cover their whole body apart from their faces and hands.” When the editors of a newspaper criticized him, Shinwari closed it down and had the editors arrested for “blasphemy.”

Khalilzad may have been chosen for Iraq precisely because he has a history of bringing fundamentalists on board and using their presence to US advantage. What this means for the people of Iraq is that things may get even worse. Fundamentalists are at the forefront of the anti-US movement in Iraq, and Shi$(Bit(Be Islamist Ibrahim Al-Jaafari was just appointed prime minister, the most powerful post in the government. Al-Jaafari$(Bs (Bwish to implement Islamic law may set back the clock for women’s rights and other secular advances by half a century (see the New Standard and referenced articles ). Based on his behavior in Afghanistan, Khalilzad as ambassador would at best ignore such changes; but more likely he would quietly encourage them as a way to gain the confidence of Al-Jaafari and other fundamentalist power brokers. In Afghanistan, Khalilzad used the people$(Bs (Bfear of US-backed warlords to both justify the US military presence and get the Afghan people to vote for the moderate Hamid Karzai, a US puppet. It is possible that Khalilzad may try to do something similar in Iraq. That is, with one hand build up the Islamists until they are seen as more of a threat to the Iraqi people than the US military; with the other strengthen the US position with more moderate elements and justify its continued occupation.

Zalmay Khalilzad$(Bs (Btransfer from Afghanistan to Iraq is not merely a sign that the Bush administration will continue imposing US imperial domination on Iraqis or that the US still wants to control Iraqi oil–this was already obvious. Not only is Khalilzad ideologically similar to the rest of the neocons crafting US policy in Iraq, he actually has a chance of accomplishing US objectives. Unlike the other US ambassadors to Iraq he has diplomatic skills and can use a faction-ridden situation to best US advantage. Furthermore, with powerful Islamists in the Iraqi government and Islamist groups leading the anti-US charge, KhalilzadÂ$(Bs (Bhistory of using fundamentalists to bring about a US-designed framework is just what Washington needs right now in Baghdad. As in Afghanistan, KhalilzadÂ$(Bs (Btactics could have frightening consequences for the Iraqi people.

James Ingalls ( ) is a co-director of the Afghan Women$(Bs (BMission (, a US-based nonprofit that works in solidarity with RAWA ( ). He is also a staff scientist at the Spitzer Science Center, California Institute of Technology.

Demonstration Elections in Afghanistan

Published in Z Magazine November, 2004

Now that the October 9 U.S.- sponsored Afghan presidential elections are over, a huge sigh of relief is probably being heaved in Washington. As of this writing, the vote counting has not yet begun and, according to news outlets, the outcome will not be known for at least two weeks. But the Bush administration got a huge boost for two reasons.

First, people came out to vote in large numbers. If even half of the 10.5 million people who are reported to have registered actually voted, then the act of voting was an incredible achievement in a country where elections for head of state have never occurred. Despite rampant violence prior to the election and threats of violence during—and despite a history of war and destruction—the Afghan people were hopeful that the elections would improve their lives. A September 2004 report by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium describes interviews with over 700 Afghans “not heard or heeded in the corridors of power.” Many of those interviewed reflected the belief that the elections would improve things significantly. One woman in Kandahar said, “If the new government is fair, it will bring great changes to our lives. We will feel more secure; women will be able to work without any fear; our country will be free from bad people.” A man in Kabul expressed the hope that, “If there is a permanent government, the guns will be collected [and] people will have jobs. Afghanistan will be a safe, comfortable society.”

The second reason the Bush administration received a boost is that the anti-election violence threatened by the Taliban and other groups largely did not materialize, due to a heavy military and police presence. There were only “scattered rocket and grenade explosions across the country and a smattering of attacks on election sites,” according to the Los Angeles Times (October 10, 2004). “A great thing happened in Afghanistan,” Bush said. “Freedom is beautiful. Freedom is on the march.”

Also on the march were soldiers. The United States and Afghan governments deployed over 100,000 security personnel (mostly Afghan, with 18,000 U.S.troops and 7,000 NATO forces backing them up) to polling places and at checkpoints on important roads. The deployment was part of “a sophisticated, nationwide security strategy.” In a year in which security has been “deteriorating,” according to NATO public relations, with the number of violent attacks steadily increasing, people should be asking why the U.S. waited until the election to show that all along it could have brought desperately needed security to the country. It is unlikely that this security will remain once the vote-counters finish their job.

Despite U.S. propaganda, the Afghan elections were not an opportunity for real democratic choice, they were an act of extortion. Bush took advantage of the Afghan people’s hope for a better future by offering them a cruel choice between two possibilities: a U.S.-controlled Hamid Karzai government with fascist fundamentalist warlords in subordinate positions; or a government completely controlled by the warlords. Of the 15 candidates challenging incumbent President Karzai on October 9, most were either warlords (the second-most likely winner was Northern Alliance commander Yunus Qanooni) or had serious connections to warlords.

Furthermore, none of the candidates had Karzai’s access to U.S. government aid, such as it is. Indeed, the blackmail has paid off: exit polls show that Karzai will likely win more than the 50 percent of votes required to avoid a runoff. Shahir, the head of the Kilid media group, describes the importance of the elections to him: “I see a chance even if I know that most of the game is fake and most people are unaware of their rights. But this is the first step in the process. Our warlords will see how much they are ‘cherished’ by the people.”

It would be a mistake to say Afghans were charmed by Karzai. Rather, they decided to pick “anybody but warlords.”

Given Karzai’s record over the past three years, it is unlikely that he will be able to improve the lives of Afghans without drastic changes in U.S. policy. After decades of war and poverty, Afghanistan lacks the basic building blocks of civil society such as roads, schools, hospitals, adequate housing, etc. Security is likely to worsen as U.S. troops return to their hunt for “terrorists.” With a weak economy and outside donations slowing to a trickle, the infrastructure that Afghanistan needs to survive, let alone flourish, is nowhere in sight.

Most Afghans agree that, since the fall of the Taliban, security has been the most serious problem. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) complains, “The president is being protected by U.S. bodyguards, but who will protect the vulnerable innocent people from the bullets of the warlords?” The violence of tyrannical warlords, Taliban terrorism, and U.S. raids in the southeast hamper every aspect of people’s lives, including their freedom of movement, distribution of aid, and the safety of women, who remain special targets. The two most formidable military powers in the country are (1) “coalition” forces (mostly U.S. troops) and (2) heavily armed private militias led by unaccountable warlords. While the former does nothing but hunt for “terrorists” in the southeast and buy the “hearts and minds” of villagers with aid, the latter frequently turn their guns on the Afghan people. The antidote to insecurity as proposed by the U.S. government has been the training of the Afghan National Army, meant to empower the central government of Hamid Karzai to secure the country. But with AK47 rifles a common sight on Afghan streets, a national army is still meaningless. After three years the ANA is only 13,000 strong, less than 20 percent of its intended size, and still much smaller than the private militias of warlords like Ismail Khan. Even though Khan was recently fired from his post as governor of Herat, he was allowed to keep his 30,000 troops. One important solution to the problem of insecurity, disarmament, is not being taken seriously by the U.S. The UN disarmament effort has been dubbed a “big failure” by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit.

The Afghan economy is also in shambles, largely because of the security situation. In particular, the largest single component of the economy is the booming warlord-controlled drug trade. Afghanistan’s legal economy is more or less controlled by the central government now that Ismael Khan is no longer governor of Herat. But this is so small that the presidential elections were a large expenditure, costing the country 10 percent of its annual revenue. The illegal trade in opium earns 8 times more than the government takes in as tax revenue. Thus the warlords are better financed than the central government, making it extremely difficult to pry them from power, regardless of who wins the election. In order to address the economic incentives of poppy cultivation to affect the warlords’ financial base and their consequent political power, Karzai will have to significantly undermine the drug trade. This is unlikely since drug production has wildly increased under his tenure and there is every indication that the trend will continue.

A White House press release cites as part of Bush’s “record of achievement” the fact that Afghanistan is now a country in which women can vote for president. Laura Bush told the Republican National Convention, “look at Afghanistan for an example of women who were totally disenfranchised in every way, who weren’t even allowed to leave their homes and now a lot of them are registered to vote in their election.” But even if the ability of women to cast votes was fully realized on October 9 (and it was not), it has little bearing on their day-to-day lives. With sexual violence at an all time high, maternal mortality rates still at epidemic levels, and education denied to married women, Afghan women have become pawns in Bush’s re-election bid. Decades of fundamentalist forces being empowered by the U.S., Pakistan, and other allies have either preserved or worsened patriarchal attitudes—leaving women oppressed within their own families. Amnesty International has documented very high levels of forced or underage marriages, imprisonment for those who escape them, “chastity checks” for women by roving street teams, and self-immolation by traumatized women. These incidents are at markedly higher rates than during the Taliban’s reign. Karzai has been unable and, in some cases, unwilling to address such issues in the past three years and has instead condoned oppressive values by encouraging men to control their wives’ votes. Further, he has appointed a religious extremist as chief justice, with the result that the constitution and its relationship to Islam are interpreted in the most misogynist ways. In post-election Afghanistan, given the trajectory over the last three years, there is little hope for women.

U.S. government and media pundits have sold the elections as a test of the ability of Afghans to embrace democracy. The secretary general of NATO said, “The enthusiasm with which the Afghan people went to the polls is an unmistakable sign that they are ready to take forward the democratic process.” Now that the Afghans are deemed “ready” to make their own decisions, the U.S. may claim even less responsibility for what happens. International attention is likely to wane, isolating the nation even more.The Afghan elections may represent a success for the Bush model of imposing imperial “democracy” via bombs and war, but they are a dismal failure by any real standard of democracy.

Jim Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar are co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission. Ingalls is a staff scientist at the Spitzer Science Center, California Institute of Technology. Kolhatkar is host and co-producer of “Uprising,” a daily public affairs program on KPFK.

Afghan Elections: US Solution to a US Problem

Published in Foreign Policy in Focus on October 6th, 2004

Afghanistan will undergo the first presidential elections in the country’s history on October 9, 2004. As if surprised by the fact that Afghans could want a voice in their country’s future, George W. Bush touted the fact that over 10 million Afghans registered to vote as “a resounding endorsement for democracy.” The real surprise is that, despite rampant anti-election violence and threats of violence, so many people were brave enough to register. This certainly indicates that Afghans are desperate for a chance to control their own lives. But, even though many will risk their lives to vote, the majority of Afghans played no part in decisionmaking regarding the schedule and structure of the elections, and will not benefit from the results. This election process was imposed by the United States to solve “Afghan problems” as defined by the United States. In reality, the problems facing Afghans are the results of decisions made in Washington in the 1980s and 1990s.1

Test for Bush, Not for Afghans

To the Bush administration and media pundits, presidential elections in Afghanistan will bring the country closer to being a “democracy,” where people decide their own fate. Business Week describes the elections as a “first test” of Bush’s claim that Afghanistan and Iraq “are on the path to democracy.” In a Washington Post opinion piece, Andrew Reynolds of the University of North Carolina similarly described the elections as a “Test for Afghan Democracy.” In this view, any failure of the process will be caused by a lack of readiness of Afghanistan and its people for “democracy,” not a failure of external players to fulfill their responsibilities to the country. What is being tested is solely the capacity of Afghans to embrace democracy. Indeed, Business Week describes only indigenous threats to the elections exercise: “Power brokers are trying to cut deals to eliminate competitive elections. Violence against election workers and politicians is on the rise…Hardly anyone expects the voting to meet international standards.” A commonly cited statistic indicating voter fraud is the estimated 10% over-registration countrywide. According to Business Week, “some areas have registration rates as high as 140% of projected eligible voters.” This is definitely disturbing, and is a blow to Bush’s own election propaganda, since he uses the “over 10 million registered” figure in campaign speeches as an example of the success of his foreign policy. The focus on voter fraud, however, keeps the emphasis on the Afghan failure to measure up to international standards. Few media outlets have dared to blame the United States for the more egregious fraud of imposing early elections on a still war-ravaged country where Northern Alliance warlords legitimized by Washington will continue to hold real power, regardless of who wins the vote. If the Afghan elections fail, Afghans will be blamed and Afghans will continue to suffer, seemingly as a result of their own actions.2

Another point rarely mentioned is that elections do not equal democracy. J. Alexander Thier, a former legal adviser to Afghanistan’s Constitutional and Judicial Reform Commissions, is one of the few commentators who dares to utter the simple fact: “Elections themselves are only a small part of democracy.” In Thier’s opinion, “Effective government service, protection of individual rights, accountability – these are the true fruits of democracy. Holding elections without the rule of law can undermine democracy by sparking violence, sowing cynicism and allowing undemocratic forces to become entrenched.” Elections are merely “the end product of a successful democracy.” Regardless of who wins the elections and by what means, civil society in Afghanistan is at the moment anything but democratic. Foreign influence, particularly US influence, has ensured that insecurity, warlordism, and a severely curtailed media are entrenched features of the political landscape.3

In reality the Afghan presidential elections will be a test not of “Afghan democracy,” but of Bush’s ability to impose his political order on a country. An editorial in Newsday holds that, “Historic elections in Afghanistan and Iraq are key goals of U.S. foreign policy, especially for President George W. Bush, who is campaigning on his determination that they be held on schedule.” Reynolds says the elections will be “a watershed moment, equal in importance to the post-Sept. 11 ousting of the Taliban.” Since the warlords that now run most of the country are as bad as or worse than the Taliban, the ousting of the Taliban was more a watershed for Washington than for the Afghan people. Similarly, the Afghan elections are really a benchmark for Bush’s foreign policy.

Reynolds says, “A legitimately elected administration in Kabul would not just be good for the Afghans; it would be much more likely to carry out the reforms the United States so keenly wants.” It is clear that the only outcome that would be considered “legitimate” by the US is a win by the incumbent transitional President, Hamid Karzai. While there are 18 candidates running, the US media have focused almost exclusively on Karzai, frequently dubbed “the favorite” in news reports. For the Bush administration it is imperative that their hand picked and well-trained candidate wins. Not only will the anticipated victory of Karzai cement the current order of US influence, it will signal a victory for the “war on terror” as Bush defines it. Reynolds says, “Karzai’s victory…would shine a ray of hope on an otherwise gloomy series of U.S. foreign policy misadventures.”4

Women are Pawns in Election

The Bush administration constantly calls attention to the fact that 4 million of those who registered to vote in Afghanistan were women. Just as the “liberation” of Afghan women was used to justify the bombing of Afghanistan three years ago, women’s participation in US imposed election is again used to justify the US approach. While the administration deals in broad statistics to paint a rosy picture, a closer look reveals that the Afghan political environment, controlled by US-backed warlords and a US-backed president, remains extremely hostile to women. Women comprise 60% of the population but only 43% of registered voters. Additionally, sharp differences in literacy between men and women put women at a huge disadvantage. Only 10% of Afghan women can read and write. While school attendance of girls has increased to about 50% nationwide, it is too early to affect women voters. Furthermore, under Karzai’s presidency, married women were banned from attending schools in late 2003.

While much mileage has been squeezed out of the notion that the US “liberated” Afghan women, only one dollar out of every $5,000 ($112,500 out of $650 million) of US financial aid sent to Afghanistan in 2002 was actually given to women’s organizations. In 2003, according to Ritu Sharma, Executive Director of the Women’s Edge Coalition, that amount was reduced to $90,000. At the same time, women have increasingly been the targets of violence. New studies by groups like Amnesty International reveal that sexual violence has surged since the fall of the Taliban, and there has been a sharp rise in incidents of women’s self-immolation in Western Afghanistan. Amnesty International has documented an escalation in the number of girls and young women abducted and forced into marriage, with collusion from the state (those who resist are often imprisoned).

US policy has empowered extreme fundamentalists who have further extended women’s oppression in a traditionally ultra-conservative society. In a public opinion survey conducted in Afghanistan this July by the Asia Foundation, 72% of respondents said that men should advise women on their voting choices and 87% of all Afghans interviewed said women would need their husband’s permission to vote. On International Women’s Day this year, Hamid Karzai only encouraged such attitudes. He implored men to allow their wives and sisters to register to vote, assuring them, “later, you can control who she votes for, but please, let her go [to register].” Most of the candidates running against Karzai have mentioned rights for women in some form or another as part of their campaign platforms. While this is obligatory in post-Taliban Afghanistan, it is little more than lip service. Latif Pedram, a candidate who went slightly further than others by suggesting that polygamy was unfair to women, was barred from the election and investigated by the Justice Ministry for “blasphemy”.

Just like the Afghan constitution signed earlier this year, which gives equal rights to women on paper, this election will probably have little bearing on the reality of Afghan women’s lives. Denied an education and underrepresented in voter rolls, with little control over the patriarchal justice system and sexist family attitudes, women are once more simply pawns within the US-designed Afghan political structure.

Warlords: Now a Problem for Bush

A recent countrywide survey of Afghans by the International Republican Institute found that “over 60 percent cited security as their primary concern, followed by reconstruction and economic development.” According to 65% of respondents, “warlords and local commanders are the main sources of instability in the country.” While most women may need the permission of their husbands to vote, their choices will be extremely limited, since most Afghans are being intimidated by US backed warlords into voting for them. According to Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, “Many voters in rural areas say the [warlord] militias have already told them how to vote, and that they’re afraid of disobeying them.” The intimidation tactics of Abdul Rashid Dostum and others are no secret, having even raised the ire of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.5

The wider context of the warlords’ power is rarely mentioned. As part of Bush’s “War on Terror,” the US made deals with Northern Alliance warlords in his crusade against the Taliban. Warlords were appointed to high-level government posts and allowed to regain regional power. As many factions fought one another for regional dominance, the US actively denied the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force from Kabul to the rest of the country, thereby closing a crucial window of opportunity to undermine the warlords early on. One should hardly be surprised at the current situation, a natural outcome of US policy over the last three years.

When their actions only affected the lives of ordinary Afghans, warlords were not a problem for Bush. Only now is Washington beginning to hold some of the warlords at arms length, as their presence reflects badly on the carefully staged demonstration of “democracy” via elections. Even worse, a warlord may become president, thwarting the carefully planned outcome. Yunus Qanooni of the Northern Alliance is seen as a major challenger to Karzai. If Karzai doesn’t win, Afghanistan could spiral out of US control. To preserve control, or at least validate the propaganda that Afghanistan is a victory for the US “war on terror,” the Bush administration is actively lobbying Karzai’s opponents to not run. According to the Los Angeles Times, thirteen of the 18 candidates, including Qanooni, have complained about interference from Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador. Khalilzad has reportedly “requested” candidates to withdraw from the race, attempting to bribe them with a position in the cabinet. Senior staff members of several candidates were described as “angry over what many Afghans see as foreign interference that could undermine the shaky foundations of a democracy the U.S. promised to build.”6

United States, Soviet Union Responsible for Current Predicament

Andrew Reynolds claims that the Afghan presidential election “will present a choice between the old and the new, between a state corrupted by private militias and self-enriching warlords; and a new type of government that bases its legitimacy on national rather than ethnic identity.” Unfortunately there is little in the Karzai government that is new, unless your view of history reaches back only a decade. Reynolds’s “new type of government” is simply a reworking of what operated in Afghanistan prior to 1919 under the British, and from 1979 to 1989 under the Soviet occupation: a client regime whose major decisions were to a greater or lesser extent controlled by a foreign power. In the Karzai government, it is obvious that Washington runs the show. According to the New York Times, US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has “possibly as much influence” in Afghanistan as L. Paul Bremer has in Iraq. Khalilzad is known as ” ‘the Viceroy’ because the influence he wields over the Afghan government reminds some Afghans of the excesses of British colonialism.” Times reporter Amy Waldman commented, Khalilzad “often seems more like [the] chief executive” of Afghanistan than Karzai. As Khalilzad “shuttles between the American Embassy and the presidential palace, where Americans guard Mr. Karzai, one place seems an extension of the other.”7

It is the warlord-dominated situation in Afghanistan that is the relatively new dynamic. Reynolds’s assertion that a client regime under Karzai would be “new” is particularly chilling coming from an American, since the warlords were first helped to power by the United States as a “solution” in the 1980s to the Soviet-run client state. The CIA and its counterpart in Pakistan, the ISI, pinned most of their hopes on the ruthless Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now working with the Taliban against the US. Other warlords being supported with US cash, weapons, and logistical support included the fundamentalists Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Burhannudin Rabbani, both big players in today’s Afghanistan. Current Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was then, as he is now, “a participant in US government deliberation” on support for these factions.8 Current US ally and presidential candidate warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum was once a Soviet ally. If the Afghan warlords are to be blamed for hindering democracy in Afghanistan, ultimate responsibility lies with the US and the Soviet Union for empowering them in the first place.

When the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime fell in 1992, the US-sponsored factions turned their weapons on each other in an attempt to gain control of the capital. Most Afghans remember the period from 1992-1996, the time between the fall of Najibullah and the coming to power of the Taliban, as the most terrible in lived history. Significantly it was during the period that US-backed protégés were reducing Kabul to rubble that Washington lost interest. By the time the Taliban arrived, there was little left of Kabul to govern.9

The foreign-backed Taliban (supported chiefly by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) were initially seen as an antidote to the anarchy caused by the foreign-backed warlords, saving Washington the trouble of cleaning up its own mess. According to the Washington Post, the Clinton administration believed that “a Taliban-dominated government represents a preferable alternative in some ways to the [current] faction-ridden coalition.” The Los Angeles Times opined that, “The American aim [in Afghanistan] was ultimately met by the Taliban.” As today, solutions were seen in the light of how they solved American, not Afghan, problems.10

The Clinton administration eventually distanced itself publicly from the Taliban, while behind the scenes cutting a deal with them on behalf of US company UNOCAL to build a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. With his finger ever in the Afghan pie, Zalmay Khalilzad was hired as an adviser to UNOCAL.

It was not until the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania traced to bin Laden that Washington’s relationship with the Taliban really soured. The US then reinstated covert support to some of its former warlord allies. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 allowed the US to bring old friends, now known as the Northern Alliance, back to power, giving them a new lease on political life. The warlords who are today considered a problem were legitimized and entrenched in the government three times in the past three years under orders from Washington (at the 2001 Bonn meetings, at the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga, and the 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga).11

Prospects for the Future

Likely Scenarios

Post election Afghanistan will look very much as it does today, if not worse. If Karzai wins with the backing of some or all Northern Alliance factions, their leaders will be awarded high-level positions, further entrenching and legitimizing them. If Karzai wins without enough support from his opponent warlords, the losing parties may attack the central government, reverting the country to civil war. If Karzai loses, the warlords might form an alliance government, a horrible thought to contemplate considering the 1992-1996 “coalition government” of many of the same factions. In the latter two scenarios, it is not clear whether the US would intervene and re-install Karzai as President (as it has done in Iraq with Prime Minister Iyad Allawi), or allow Afghanistan to fester and implode (as it did in the early 1990s). What is certain is that none of these scenarios will lead to peace or real democracy.

Imaginary Scenarios

If the United States wanted to be truly bold, it would create the conditions for peace, justice, and democracy in Afghanistan. The first step would be to completely end all support for the Northern Alliance warlords and anyone else with a poor record on human rights. The US would then assist the United Nations in disarming warlords and their private armies, and work towards reducing the number of available weapons. Coupled with disarmament would be a “justice and reconciliation process” defined by the Afghans, by which those responsible for human rights violations would be held accountable. Ideally, US and Soviet officials would be reprimanded, if not criminally prosecuted.

Instead of focusing on the failed “hunt” for Al Qaeda and Taliban members, the US could save lives by ending its own military campaign.

Instead of restricting the international peacekeepers to Kabul, the US should fund the expansion to the entire country, sending a clear signal to warlords and the former Taliban that the war is over. This would provide a sense of security for Afghans interested in participating in democratic exercises like elections. International peacekeepers that truly keep the peace, instead of fighting “wars on terrorism” or buying “hearts and minds” would enhance the trust in aid agencies and allow them to remain impartial while they handle the needs of ordinary Afghans.

Instead of holding aid to rural Afghans hostage to information on “terrorists,” or conducting expensive, wasteful token reconstruction projects, the US should shut down its “Provincial Reconstruction Teams.” These PRTs have militarized the distribution of aid, jeopardizing the safety of real aid workers who are for the first time associated with US military goals (Colin Powell calls them “force multipliers”). This in turn jeopardizes Afghans’ access to aid.

Instead of pouring money into keeping only Kabul safe for Karzai, the US could fully fund reconstruction and the basic human needs (food, shelter, health care, education) of Afghan people, especially women. The healthier and safer the people of Afghanistan, the better able they would be to exercise democratic rights and organize against religious fundamentalist forces and women’s oppression. This aid should be unconditional, given as reparation for the damage caused by US-backed factions over the past two decades.

Sadly, it is highly unlikely that the United States, with either Bush or Kerry at the helm, would embark on such a constructive series of projects. For that to happen, the US would have to, for the first time, put the human needs of the Afghan people over the military needs of its empire.

Jim Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar are Co-Directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based non-profit organization that works in solidarity with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). Jim is a staff scientist at the Spitzer Science Center, California Institute of Technology. Sonali is the host and co-producer of Uprising, a daily public affairs program on KPFK Pacifica Radio. Together they have published many articles on Afghanistan and are working on their first book about US policy in Afghanistan. For more information visit and


  1. For excellent reviews of the circumstances of the Afghan elections, the problems, and the human rights and moral issues, that go beyond mainstream headlines, see A. E. Brodsky, “America is Playing a Dangerous Game with Afghanistan,” The Gadflyer, September 14, 2004,; M. Sedra, “Afghanistan: Democracy Before Peace?,” (Silver City, NM & Washington DC: Foreign Policy in Focus, September 2004),; Human Rights Watch, “The Rule of the Gun: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression inthe Run-up to Afghanistan’s Presidential Election,” September 2004,
  2. S. Crock, “A Treacherous Test for Afghan Democracy,” Business Week, October 4, 2004; A. Reynolds, “A Test for Afghan Democracy,” Washington Post, September 25, 2004
  3. J. A. Thier, “What Elections Mean for Afghanistan,” Stanford Daily, September 28, 2004,
  4. Editorial, “Don’t Let Violdence Halt Balloting in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Newsday, September 28, 2004; Reynolds, “Test for Afghan Democracy”
  5. Media Release, “Afghans Most Concerned About Security,” International Republican Institute, July 27, 2004,; Human Rights Watch, “Rule of the Gun”; M. Albright and R. Cook, “The world needs to step it up in Afghanistan,” International Herald Tribune, October 4, 2004,
  6. On the warlord challenge to Karzai, see Sedra, “Democracy Before Peace”; On Khalilzad bribery, see P. Watson, “U.S. Hand Seen in Afghan Election,” Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2004
  7. Reynolds, “Test for Afghan Democracy,” A. Waldman, “In Afghanistan, US Envoy Sits in Seat of Power,” New York Times, April 17, 2004; Watson, “U.S. Hand Seen”
  8. By his own admission: Z. Khalilzad, “Afghanistan: Time to Reengage,” Washington Post, October 7, 1996
  9. J. Burns, “With Kabul Largely in Ruins, Afghans Get a Respite from War,” New York Times, February 20, 1995
  10. M. Dobbs, “Analysts Feel Militia Could End Anarchy,” Washington Post, September 28, 1996; Editorial, Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1996
  11. E. Sciolino, “State Dept. Becomes Cooler to the New Rulers of Kabul,” New York Times, October 23, 1996; J. Ingalls, “The United States and the Afghan Loya Jirga: A Victory for the Puppet Masters,” Z Magazine, September 2002; J. Ingalls, “The New Afghan Constitution: A Step Backwards for Democracy,” (Silver City, NM & Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, March 2004),

Shattering Illusions: Kerry Doesn’t Need or Want Anti-War Activists

In the first minute of his July 29 Democratic National Convention (DNC) acceptance speech, John Kerry told us that the Democratic party has “one simple purpose: to make America stronger at home and respected in the world.” The Republicans have set the standard by which a US President will be judged, and listening to peace and social justice activists is not one of the desired qualities. Regardless of who gets elected, the two parties tell us, the next president will be a “Commander-in-chief”: tough on terrorism, national security and Homeland Security, and easy on corporations, while paying lip-service to jobs, healthcare, and education. According to Democrats quoted in the New York Times (July 25th 2004), this year’s DNC was designed so that you “think you’re looking at a Republican Convention.” Kerry is reaching out to the same base that Bush is, so this election year there is hardly even the pretense of progressive values coming from the Democratic elites on the podium.

The thousands of people who mobilized four years ago at the Los Angeles DNC to critique the Democrats are a very different crowd from the mainstream or liberal wing of the party that will vote for John Kerry this November. Kerry and the Democratic Party elite do not need the votes of activists ­ they do not constitue a significant or influential voting block like corporations or other Republican constituencies that appear to be the targets of most Kerry campaigning. Furthermore, Kerry and the Party elite do not actually want peace activists to campaign for them, at least not as peace activists. This was demonstrated most tellingly at the DNC where not only was criticism of the war discouraged, but peace activists among the delegates were not allowed to bring literature or clothing that expressed an anti-war stance. Medea Benjamin, who advocates voting for Kerry in swing states, was thrown out of the convention hall after unfurling a banner calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq. Other activists were barred from entering with headscarves that read “Delegates for Peace” and one California delegate with a flyer entitled “No War on Iraq” was prevented from bringing it onto the floor of the convention hall.

Anti-war views were by no means rare at the Convention. Even within the narrow spectrum of the Democratic Party, ninety percent of delegates oppose the war in Iraq (according to a recent CBS/NY Times poll). Their views were barely reflected in the choreographed speeches of their elite “representatives.” Outspoken anti-war Democrat Dennis Kucinich justified ignoring the divide: “we’re going to unite our party to elect John Kerry and then we’re going to continue the debate within the Democratic Party.” (PBS Interview) So, ninety percent of the party’s rank-and-file have to compromise their position on the war to comply with the 10 percent who are represented by the powerful elite of the party. Instead of the party taking a stand based on the majority sentiment, the crucial debate over war has been relegated to internal party discussion, where it will probably fizzle out. Those on the left who advocate blind support for Kerry hand responsibility for the debate over war and occupation to the Democratic Party, whose elites have more in common with Republicans than with their own rank-and-file.

The irresponsible idealism with which the antiwar movement is throwing its support behind a pro-war Bush-like candidate is disturbing. Little attempt is being made by the Party itself to reach out to those who are unregistered or uninterested, but private groups like and individuals like filmmaker Michael Moore are doing it for them, under the slogan “Anybody But Bush.” The MoveOn Political Action Committee just sent a letter to its members that “hope is on the way” in the guise of John Kerry, parroting Kerry’s own refrain (“help is on the way”) during his DNC acceptance speech. After he wins, MoveOn tells us, “we’ll wake up that morning able to dream big dreams for a country and a world that are once again headed in the right direction.” Unless voters are aware of the problems of backing Kerry for President most will go home after election day, either happy that their candidate won or cynical that their actions had no effect. Being realistic about Kerry’s background may prepare activists to begin organizing now, regardless of who wins, determined to involve themselves in struggle for the long haul, if that’s what it takes.

The constituency that Kerry actually listens to includes those who want the good old days of a glorious America that had “credibility” in the world and could enforce genocidal sanctions on Iraq with a smile. They want the Democratic Party to back a candidate that “appears” to respect international law even as we repeatedly violate it. Kerry voters will include Republicans who are disgusted with the Bush administration’s overt imperialism, choosing instead a stealthy approach to world domination. Kerry would forego Bush’s blatant unilateralism in favor of a more nuanced version. Just like Bush, Kerry would ” never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security,” but he would at least have “the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden.” To Kerry, the US must be feared and respected, “not just feared.”

“We need John Kerry to restore life to the Global War on Terrorism,” said Jimmy Carter on the first day of the DNC. If the war on terrorism needed any more life than Bush gave it in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world is in for a disaster. As we saw by the State Department’s (revised) Patterns of Global Terrorism report, countries subjected to the US “war on terrorism” showed increasing rates of terrorism. If Kerry wanted to address sources of terrorism, he might work to end the US occupation of Iraq and theUS-backed occupation of Palestine. Instead, he is insistent on continuing the brutal legacy of the Clinton era in Iraq and has allied himself unequivocally with Israel. If he becomes President, Kerry will clearly act at least as center-right as Clinton, and maybe worse. His positions on Afghanistan and Cuba are Clintonesque as well.

Carter and others have emphasized Kerry’s tour of duty as a soldier in Vietnam as evidence that “He is a proven defender of national security.” The implicit emphasis is on his blind obedience to US imperial policy. Kerry himself said he learned his values “on that gunboat patrolling the Mekong Delta,” without mentioning his eventual public stand against the war. Rarely is Kerry’s past anti-war activism invoked, except by some anti-war supporters who blindly ignore his more recent pro-war record as Senator.

Knowing that public disenchantment with Bush’s foreign policy will not be enough to elect him (especially since he does not have much that is different to offer), Kerry has decided to highlight domestic issues like jobs, healthcare, and education. Outsourcing is a hot-button issue that Kerry has promised to reduce, despite his vote for NAFTA. Little mention is made of the inherent contradiction between his support of “free trade” and protectionist measures to preserve jobs at home-or the contradiction between wooing organized labor by backing environmental and labor standards in trade agreements, and his support for corporate power. Kerry is unambiguous that his real constituency is Big Business. In an interview with BusinessWeek (August 2nd) Kerry revealed, “I am going to bring Corporate America to the table to say: How do we make you more competitive? How do we get out of your way? Research-and-development tax credits? I’d make them permanent and larger. Manufacturing tax credits? That’s a smart way to help I am 100% in favor of companies going abroad to do business.”

It is true that a small amount of positive change will accompany a Kerry administration­most certainly fewer people will die in the short term. If Kerry wins in November it will definitely be a blow to the ultra-facist Neoconservatives and their allies. But those who are interested in long term radical social change, an admittedly marginal slice of the population, should not waste their time and effort in propping up the Democratic Party elite and their Republican-like agenda. There are plenty of people who are doing that already. Activism should focus on exposing Kerry before he ascends to the White House so that there will be few illusions that the Kerry era will be any better than the Clinton era; and so we can lay the groundwork for opposing Kerry’s policies as soon as possible. Kerry should be put on notice that the rabble-rousers who see through his compromises will not for long indulge in a sigh of relief if he wins. Instead activism ought to focus on constantly pushing the discussion to the left, wresting it from the rightward trend of current political discourse. We should be clear: activists who want serious social change, like those who mobilized 4 years ago to hold Gore and the Democrats accountable, will not find it in backing Kerry.

Sonali Kolhatkar is co-producer and host of Uprising, a morning drive-time radio program on KPFK Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles.

James Ingalls is a staff scientist at the Spitzer Space Telescope Science Center, California Institute of Technology. They both are co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission.

Jihad Comes Full Circle: US and Pakistan in the Hunt for Bin Laden

Published on Wednesday, March 24, 2004 by and by ZNet

In January 2004, the Chicago Tribune cited military sources in Washington planning a “spring offensive” on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan “that would reach inside Pakistan with the goal of destroying Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network”[1] That offensive has clearly begun with recent troop deployments in the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, also known as the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). But the troops are not just American, they are mostly Pakistani. In fact, Pakistan seems to be the US’s new best friend, having recently been declared a “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA) which would enable it to benefit from defense cooperation and loan guarantees to pay for arms deals. Secretary of State, Colin Powell has already announced new loan guarantees awarded to Pakistan and arms sales can proceed within weeks[2]. But arms sales are a violation of the 1985 “Pressler amendment” to the US Foreign Aid Act which asserts that “no military equipment or technology shall be sold or transferred to Pakistan” unless Pakistan is certified to be free of nuclear weapons technology[3].

Major news media are referring to the current operation in the NWFP as “Pakistan’s Campaign Against Al Qaeda” (New York Times), “Pakistan’s Al Qaeda Offensive” (Al Jazeera), the “Pakistani Offensive” (LA Times), “Pakistan’s Al Qaeda Hunt” (BBC), etc. While Musharraf has expressly denied there any US troops on Pakistani soil, “senior American military officials said that small numbers of [US] commandos . have conducted cross-border operations”[4]. This is not a Pakistani operation – it is Made in the USA. Washington planned the offensive this January, has arranged weapons sales, and is using Pakistani troops as “proxy forces in that area”[5].

The US eagerness to work with Pakistan and even clear arms sales in violation of its own laws seems surprising — it comes on the heels of a revelation that the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, had been selling nuclear secrets to countries like Libya, Iran and North Korea. Additionally, only three years ago Pakistan was one of three countries that recognized the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan, and is widely known as having actually nurtured and sponsored the Taliban.

In fact, US-Pakistan “cooperation” should come as no surprise. The US already pays almost $100 million a month to Pakistan for providing logistical support in the war against terrorism[6]. While transitions to democracy are lofty US goals for Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan is an exception: Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator of Pakistan, is Washington’s close ally and dutifully choreographed an about-turn after September 11th 2001 on his sponsorship of the Taliban. Most recently Secretary of State Colin Powell seemed content with the conditional amnesty that Musharraf granted the nuclear proliferator, Abdul Qadeer Khan. Today Musharraf is doing his part by cooperating with Washington’s current offensive in the NWFP. But the cooperation comes at a hefty price: last December Musharraf was the target of a failed assassination attempt by an alleged Al Qaeda suspect.

The U.S. has convinced Musharraf to contradict himself on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. According to Musharraf in early 2002, bin Laden was dead or possibly “alive in Afghanistan”[7]. By July 2002 Musharraf went further in asserting: “I doubt he is alive, and if he is alive he cannot be in Pakistan”[8] But today, “facing intense pressure from Washington”[9] Musharraf was convinced that “bin Laden and his followers likely were hiding in the mountains along the Afghan border”[10].

Recent excitement in the U.S. over bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri has also revealed contradictions in Pakistan. While U.S. and Pakistani troops combed the mountainous South Waziristan district for al-Zawahiri, Pakistani officials now admit they were simply guessing his presence: Mehmood Shah, the head of security in the NWFP admitted “We have no indication [of al-Zawahiri’s whereabouts]. Our guess was based on the amount of resistance we faced and the number of foreign fighters. Later on, many people started guessing names, and that’s how his name came up”[11]. Now underground tunnels in the NWFP reveal escape routes which were probably utilized in response to the US’s announced offensive[12].

President Bush says, “the best way to defend America . . . is to stay on the offensive and find these killers, one by one.[13]” Bush fails to state clearly who “these killers” are. Are they Al Qaeda or the Taliban? What about the primary inhabitants of the NWFP — Pashtun tribals and Mujahadeen warriors? What about their family members, wives and children? According to US military sources, the “spring offensive” is “designed to go after the Taliban and everybody connected with it”[14]. This is a very broad definition which likely includes ordinary Afghan and Pakistani civilians.

With Pakistan visibly taking the heat for the offensive, US troops are poised in Afghanistan with “what the military calls “blocking positions” at strategic junctions along the frontier”. These are designed to “trap and kill militants fleeing the Pakistani attacks”[15]. So far 25 civilians have been killed with half of them women and children[16]. The head of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno praised Pakistan’s terrorist tactics: “I’ve seen some very positive developments from Pakistan, and I’m going to continue to encourage them to do more in those areas.” For example the “destruction of homes and things of that nature…we’re watching that with great interest.[17]” Taken together these facts reveal a picture of a US offensive via Pakistani proxies targeting anyone and everyone in the area, and trapping those that try to flee into Afghanistan.

The locals are not happy. In response to the civilian casualties, tribesman Mukhtar Wazir said “Musharraf is evil, Bush is Satan”[18]. Hundreds of people responded to the civilian casualties with a demonstration in Peshawar, the capital of the NWFP, chanting “Get out FBI” and “Stop the War in Tribal Areas in the Name of Al Qaeda”[19]. Maulan Khalil-ur-Rehman, a tribal leader and a member of parliament, claimed that “The ‘foreign fighters’ living in Wana were heroes of Islam when they were fighting the Soviets, but now we are told by Musharraf and America they are terrorists”[20].

The late Pakistani scholar Eqbal Ahmed went further in clarifying the connection between the US and the mujahadeen or “foreign fighters” of Pakistan and Afghanistan in a 1993 interview with David Barsamian:

All of them are former allies of the United States. All of them have been armed by the United States. All of them were described as “mujahid,” holy warriors, by the United States. The same media which are now calling them fundamentalists called them freedom fighters only four years ago. Those same freedom fighters are now “fundamentalists.”[21].

In addition to Osama bin Laden and his allies it seems clear that the US’s targets include all its old fundamentalist friends and their families. Residents of the NWFP have dismissed the Pakistani actions “as a stunt aimed at “appeasing America””[22]. This puts the Pakistani prime minister between a rock and a hard place: Musharraf is being forced to aim an army nurtured on “jehadi” rhetoric against the “jehadis” themselves[23]. Jihad has come full circle with the U.S. and Pakistan (acting on U.S. orders) terrorizing the very people they nurtured, and these very people turning their terrorist tactics back on their benefactors and their allies. Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Rashid describes his country’s situation best: “Either way, whether Bin Laden is captured or not, there will be serious consequences for Pakistan’s domestic peace and stability”[24].

Sonali Kolhatkar ( is the host and co-producer of Uprising, a daily morning public affairs program with KPFK, Pacifica, Los Angeles. She is also the Co-Director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based non-profit that works in solidarity with Afghan women on humanitarian and political work.


[1] Spolar, Christine, “U.S. plans Al Qaeda offensive”, Chicago Tribune, 01/28/04.

[2] “US to Reward Pakistan With New Arms Status”, Los Angeles Times, 03/19/04.

[3] The Pressler Amendment and Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Program, US Senate Hearing, 07/31/92.

[4] Schmitt, Eric, “U.S. Quietly Aiding Pakistan Campaign Against Al Qaeda”, New York Times, 03/23/04

[5] Spolar, Ibid.

[6] “Pakistan gets $100M per month from U.S.”, United Press International, 03/22/04

[7] “Pakistan’s Musharraf: Bin Laden Probably Dead”, CNN, 01/18/02.

[8] “Musharraf: Bin Laden not in Pakistan”, BBC News, 08/01/02.

[9] Rashid, Ibid.

[10] Spolar, Ibid.

[11] Lynch, David, “Pakistan: Zawahiri hunt just a ‘guess'”, USA Today, 03/21/04.

[12] Wazir, Ahsanullah, “Did Pakistan tunnel help terrorists to flee?”, Associated Press, 03/23/04.

[13] Spolar, Ibid.

[14] Spolar, Ibid.

[15] Schmitt, Ibid.

[16] Ali, Zulfiqar, “At Least 25 Civilians Die in Pakistani Offensive”, Los Angeles Times, 03/21/04.

[17] Defense Department, “Special Department Of Defense Briefing on Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan,” 02/17/04.

[18] “Pakistan to try new tack in al-Qaida hunt”, Associated Press, 03/21/04

[19] Ali, Ibid.

[20] Foster, Ibid.

[21] Barsamian, David, “India, Pakistan, Bosnia, etc.”, an interview with Eqbal Ahmed, Z net, 08/04/93.

[22] Foster, Peter, “Pakistan’s border campaign ‘a stunt'”, The Age, Australia, 03/23/04.

[23] Hoodbhoy, Pervez, Interview with Sonali Kolhatkar, KPFK, Pacifica Radio, 03/23/04.

[24] Rashid, Ahmed, “Musharraf’s Bin Laden headache”, BBC News, 03/17/04.

The New Afghan Constitution: A Step Backwards for Democracy

Published by Foreign Policy in Focus, March 10, 2004

On January 4, 2004, 502 delegates agreed on a Constitution for Afghanistan , an act many have described as a positive step toward democracy. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad wrote: “Afghans have seized the opportunity provided by the United States and its international partners to lay the foundation for democratic institutions and provide a framework for national elections.” 1 Judging by who was allowed to participate, their manner of participation, and the document itself, the foundation set by the delegates and their foreign overseers was precisely antidemocratic.

Legitimizing Afghan Warlords

The constitutional Loya Jirga (grand council) was the third in a series of events prescribed at the December 2001 Bonn meetings for building a post-Taliban Afghanistan consistent with the interests of the United States. The first event was the Bonn meeting itself, the second was the emergency Loya Jirga in June 2002, and the fourth will be presidential elections, scheduled for June 2004.

Like the first two milestones in the Bonn process, the constitutional meetings were notorious in that the Afghan warlords of the Northern Alliance, also known as the United Front, and other jihadi (holy warrior) factions were allowed to participate as legitimate representatives of the people. 2 At the Bonn meetings and in the emergency Loya Jirga, warlords had been awarded prominent seats in the government of President Hamid Karzai in exchange for compliance with U.S. goals. Their documented history of terrorism forgotten, the Afghan warlords, not the Afghan people, were liberated by U.S. intervention and empowered to participate in the new political process. 3

The constitutional meeting this winter did nothing to reverse the trend. According to John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, the process of selecting representatives for the assembly was characterized by “vote-buying, death threats and naked power politics.”

“Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of local military or intelligence commanders intimidating candidates and purchasing votes. In Kabul, guarded by international security forces, intelligence and military officials were openly mingling with candidates at an election site. Many candidates complained of an atmosphere of fear and corruption. In areas outside of Kabul, many independent candidates were too afraid to even run. In a few cases, factional leaders themselves were elected–despite rules barring government officials from serving as delegates. The majority of the 502 delegates to the Loya Jirga were members of voting blocs controlled by military faction leaders, or warlords. Some good people were elected, but they were outnumbered–and scared.” 4

The warlords are able to participate, not because a majority of Afghans want them there, but because Washington decided to use them first as suppliers of ground troops to help oust the Taliban and then as governors to help control the population once the Taliban rulers were gone. In the emergency Loya Jirga of June 2002, the U.S. and UN ensured that Northern Alliance leaders became entrenched in power as ministers of the transitional government, an illegal outcome according to the Bonn rules. In exchange for top ministerial posts, the warlords put their support behind Hamid Karzai, the U.S. choice for president. Washington envoy Khalilzad ensured that the popular former king Zahir Shah did not stand for office, precluding any viable challenger to Karzai. 5 Khalilzad rationalized his choice as follows: “The question really is how to balance the requirements of peace, which sometimes necessitates difficult compromises, and the requirements of justice, which require accountability.” Accountability ranking last on Washington ‘s list of priorities, the envoy’s intention was that Afghans would have to continue suffering injustice, but at least they would experience “peace” in a country run by warlords.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld agrees with the view that warlords are good for Afghanistan . “[I]n the bulk of the country the armies, the militias, the forces that exist there, almost all of which have U.S. Special Forces involved with them and advising them and participating, are by their presence contributing to stability.” The kind of “stability” that Mr. Rumsfeld appreciates can be found in the city of Herat, run by Ismail Khan, considered “an appealing person” by the defense secretary. A November 2002 report by Human Rights Watch found that Herat “has remained much as it was under the Taliban: a closed society in which there is no dissent, no criticism of the government, no independent newspapers, no freedom to hold open meetings, and no respect for the rule of law.” The report documents “a pattern of widespread political intimidation, arrests, beatings, and torture by police and security forces under the command of Ismail Khan.” 6

U.S. leaders show deep sensitivity toward their allies whose proxy troops control the population of Afghanistan. “Pentagon officials refrain from using the term ‘warlord’,” the New York Times informs us. 7 Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz told the U.S. Senate in 2002: “I think the basic strategy here is first of all to work with those warlords or regional leaders, whatever you prefer to call them, to encourage good behavior.” U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a staunch Northern Alliance supporter for over a decade, angrily came to the defense of “supposed warlords” who were being criticized at a House Foreign Relations Committee hearing in June 2003:

I’ve heard a lot of negative posturing about…these people who happened to have been the guys who sided with the United States …Dostam, Atta, Khan…these were the people who defeated the Taliban… Just keep that in mind if you’re an American. They came to help us defeat people who slaughtered our own people [September 11, 2001]. And I’m grateful for that. And I’m not about to label them in these pejorative terms [as warlords], especially when the Taliban are still on the border…I would admonish [you] not to go so quickly in getting rid of people who helped us defeat the Taliban.

Rohrabacher’s point enlightens us as to the motives of U.S. officials. Criminals who “sided with the United States ” are to be defended and given power, while those who don’t are cast out, persecuted, and recognized as criminals or terrorists. The consistency of this approach is remarkable, and, when understood, it clarifies a commonly perceived inconsistency in U.S. behavior; namely, the transformation from support to denouncement of thugs like Osama bin Laden, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Saddam Hussein.

The converse is also true. Outcasts can be brought back into the fold, provided they obey. The Washington Post reported in December a “new strategy” that includes “wooing some Taliban members.” The head of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno maintains: “Those who are criminals must be held accountable, but for the rank and file, the noncriminals, there will be opportunities for reconciliation and reintegration.” 8 In practice, however, the criminality of the Taliban extends only to those who defy Washington. Those who obey, no matter how highly placed, are allowed “reintegration,” that is, power. For example, the former Defense Minister of the Taliban Mullah Abdul Razzak has joined Jaishul Muslim, an offshoot of the Taliban based in Peshawar, Pakistan. According to Asia Times Online, the group developed as a result of an effort by “the Pakistani and U.S. intelligence establishments” to create “a proxy organization” that would “split the Taliban and reduce the intensity of its resistance movement.” The goal is to use Jaishul Muslim “to sway Taliban commanders with the offer of a place in the government.” The organization “has little, if any, support within Afghanistan itself,” 9 but as far as Washington is concerned, popular support has never been a necessary condition for governing a country.

An alternate, equally consistent approach would have been to disarm and weaken all armed factions, refusing to deal with any group guilty of human rights violations, including both the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. This approach, based on principles rather than power, is foreign to Washington power brokers but has practical underpinnings. A recent report by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul-based think tank, finds that the current process, “based on impunity,” is “inherently unstable and unsustainable.” According to the report, “it is past perpetrators of violence who are the cause of insecurity today and the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s futureÂ,T (B[I]f perpetrators are not punished for their violations, they will repeat their acts and the cycle of impunity and insecurity will continue endlessly.” 10 The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a political and humanitarian organization outspoken in its denunciation of fundamentalist groups like the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, goes further: “Unless the West stops backing the Northern Alliance fundamentalists and starts supporting the independence-loving and freedom-loving forces, it …will be haunted by the threat of inhuman incidents like 11th of September” 11

The Most Powerful Warlords

While their Afghan allies were bullying candidates for the constitutional Loya Jirga, the warlords in Washington were engaging in their own form of intimidation, directed at the Afghan population residing in the extensive border with Pakistan. A week before Afghan warlords and bureaucrats assembled under a tent in Kabul’s soccer stadium (a public execution site under the Taliban) to discuss the Constitution, the Pentagon began Operation Avalanche, its largest military campaign in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. The operation was part of a security plan to keep the Loya Jirga free from terrorist attacks, which have been rising dramatically throughout the country. 12 “We want to take the offensive…to keep them busy protecting and defending themselves,” U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad said. Here “them” was intended to mean terrorists, but anyone in the way of Operation Avalanche was unlikely to be spared.

The title was surprisingly (although perhaps unintentionally) frank in evoking the U.S. military as an unstoppable force of nature, indiscriminately destroying anything in its path. In the first week of the assault U.S. forces proved that assessment correct, killing 15 children in two separate aerial attacks aimed at single individuals. Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty absolved U.S. soldiers by blaming the children for being in the path of Operation Avalanche: “if noncombatants surround themselves with thousands of weapons Â,T (Bin a compound known to be used by a terrorist, we are not completely responsible for the consequences.” Hilferty did express regret for the massacres, not because they were war crimes, but because “such mistakes could make the Afghan people think ill of the coalition.” After the first air raid killed nine children, the UN envoy to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi said, “[it] adds to a sense of insecurity and fear in the country.” The Washington Post reported that the U.S. airstrikes, together with antigovernment terrorist attacks, “have cast a jittery pall over preparations” for the constitutional assembly. 13

In the next stage of the Bonn process, Afghan presidential elections slated for summer 2004, the violence will only increase. (More on the elections below.) A highly publicized “spring offensive” is planned by Washington to keep antigovernment forces on the run until after elections, just as Operation Avalanche was used to provide security for the constitutional Loya Jirga. The probable consequences for people living in the regions under attack will be as devastating.

The senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, claims that in the border areas with Pakistan the Pentagon is “moving to a more classic counterinsurgency strategy,” which means in practice that the Afghan population itself is considered a potential enemy. Barno explained that currently “battalions, and oftentimes companies and sometimes even platoons, now own specific large chunks of the countryside; stay in those areas, operate continuously out of those areas; maintain and develop relations with the tribal elders, with the mullahs, with the local government officials.” An unnamed senior Afghan government official told the New York Times, “There is a widening gap between the Afghan people and the Americans,” which is a polite way of saying that Afghans are not happy with the U.S. presence. Reuters describes “confusion and mistrust” that often has “turned to hatred” because of “aggressive search tactics and a general sense among Muslims of being under siege.” An open letter from the villagers of Lejay to the United Nations mission reads, in part: “The Americans searched our province. They did not find Mullah Omar, they did not find Osama bin Laden, and they did not find any Taliban. They arrested old men, drivers, and shopkeepers, and they injured women and children.” One resident of Sher-o-Aba, Haji Allah Dad, told Reuters: “On the slightest suspicion, they arrest us and treat us like animals. Their treatment is so inhuman that sometimes we even think of joining the ‘jihad’ (holy war) of the Taliban against them.” 14

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, the Pakistani military is apparently stepping up its own intimidation of frontier citizens. In Barno’s words, this is part of a “hammer and anvil approach” to “crush the al Qaeda elements between the Pakistani and the coalition forces.” No comment is made about the innocent people crushed along with them. The Boston Globe reports that this is the “largest joint effort to date” conducted by the U.S. and Pakistan, with “thousands of troops” deploying to the “lawless northwestern frontier, pressuring tribal elders and allowing American soldiers from neighboring Afghanistan to make forays across the border.” 15 Barno praised the results: “I’ve seen some very positive developments from Pakistan, and I’m going to continue to encourage them to do more in those areas.” For example, “destruction of homes and things of that nature…we’re watching that with great interest.” 16

Guaranteeing Long-term U.S. Interests

Molesting villagers and razing their homes may ensure temporary deference to Washington’s power in the “lawless” frontier region, but such forays are costly and, because they are based on fear, cannot have a lasting effect. That is why the new Afghan Constitution is important for planners in Washington. In addition to its propaganda value as “proof” that U.S. actions lead to democracy, the Constitution cements a political power structure that legitimizes Washington’s long-term intentions for Afghanistan. Despite the fact that there will be a National Assembly with the ability to enact laws, overwhelming political power is currently allocated to the president. A strong presidency is not necessary for democracy, but it is a lot easier for an external empire to exert control if one person holds most of the power. According to an op-ed article in Gulf News: “A centralized presidency in Kabul must be the surest way of maintaining the Afghan government’s support for U.S.-led policies … diluting authority is bound to bring in voices of dissent on matters [bearing on] Washington ‘s interests.” 17

A paper by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a mainstream Brussels-based think tank (board members include Zbigniew Brzezinski, Wesley Clark, and George Soros), analyzed the draft Constitution presented by Karzai to the delegates. (This draft was accepted with minor changes.) 18 According to the report, that version of the Constitution “would fail to provide meaningful democratic governance, including power-sharing, a system of checks and balances, or mechanisms for increasing the representation of ethnic, regional and other minority groups.” The ICG criticized “the manner in which the draft has been prepared and publicised, as well as its content,” all of which “raise serious questions about whether it can become the first constitution in Afghanistan ‘s history to command genuinely deep popular support.” An earlier draft described a prime ministerial position to balance the power of the president. But, according to the ICG, President Karzai changed the draft because of a “strong desire … for a purely presidential system.” Apparently it was not Karzai’s idea alone. It is “the perception of many Afghans” that the notion of a strong presidency grew out of “the U.S. desire to ensure Karzai is in firm control, or at least unchallenged while he struggles to assert his authority over other powerful players.”

Many Afghans also found fault with Karzai’s draft. Controversy over presidential power actually threatened to shut down the constitutional Loya Jirga when 48% of the delegates boycotted the vote. Karzai was furious, declaring: “There won’t be any deals on Afghanistan’s system of government, neither with jihadi leaders nor with anyone else.” 19 That’s an interesting choice of words, since in the end it was a backroom agreement brokered by U.S. and UN officials that led to the withdrawal of objections to a strong presidency. 20

Karzai and his backers in the U.S. and the UN portray the proponents of a more representative system as “rivals of Karzai, mainly from the Northern Alliance.” 21 In other words, they are warlords with independent fiefdoms anxious to legitimize their power at Karzai’s expense. Although it is true that the warlords stand to benefit from a decentralized government, there are many problems with the view that a strong presidency is the only way to weaken the power of the warlords. First, it ignores the tacit legalization and bolstering of warlord power resulting from U.S. strategic decisions (continuing today), and it puts the burden for disempowering local warlords on Afghan shoulders. Second, although the lack of a prime ministerial position ensures that a warlord figure will currently not be able to share power with Karzai, a presidency with few checks and balances predisposes Afghanistan to a takeover by such a figure in the future–e.g., a Musharraf-style coup or an authoritarian regime like those in Central Asia. And third, the boycott was instigated and joined by many Afghans who are not members of the Northern Alliance or other warlord factions. For example, Mustafa Etemadi, a member of the Shiite Hazara minority, who said: “We did not go to vote, because our people’s desires were not respected. We want far-reaching democracy in this country, we want our Parliament to have more authority.” Habiba, a teacher from Kabul had a similar message: “We want a strong Parliament alongside the president, equal rights for men and women, democracy among all the ethnic groups, and recognition of all the languages of the nation. The Constitution is not for one tribe or one people; it belongs to all the people of the country.” 22

Although the assembly was dominated by Karzai and his U.S.-backed elite on one hand and the Northern Alliance warlords on the other, there were “less-powerful groups: women delegates, ethnic Hazaras, former communists, and ethnic Uzbeks” who strove for a parliamentary system. They also fought for the few lines in the Constitution giving women some recognition–women’s rights are declared equal to those of men, and over 25% of seats in the lower house of Parliament are reserved for women. In contrast, U.S. concerns at the constitutional Loya Jirga were strictly power-related, centering on the need to control the people with a dominant president. Other issues, such as human rights and bringing warlords to justice were not considered important enough to advocate. According to the Christian Science Monitor: “Neither Karzai nor his American backers publicly made a point of emphasizing women’s rights.” 23

Elections in Afghanistan and the United States

Though not in the way he intended, Zalmay Khalilzad was right when he said that the constitutional meetings “provide a framework for national elections,” due to happen this summer. Like the framework used for the first three stages of the Bonn process, this final event will probably consist of a preordained decision presented to the people by the United States and the United Nations (through their intermediaries, Karzai and the warlords). The people will be given few choices, if any, so the intended presidential candidate, Hamid Karzai, will be ratified. And finally, the results will be proclaimed to the world as a triumph for democracy.

But although the gathering of votes might take place, that act will not constitute democracy. Holding elections under current circumstances in Afghanistan will at best insult democracy and at worst spark a civil war. Most credible analysts assert that the summer timetable does not allow enough time to create the necessary conditions for free and fair elections. Currently, only 10% of Afghanistan’s eligible population has been registered to vote, and no political parties have been recognized. Furthermore, crushing poverty and physical insecurity in much of the country will prevent many Afghans from registering. UN spokesperson Manual de Almeida e Silva asserts that “it is close to impossible to meet the June date with the current security conditions, which do not permit the registration to take place all over the country.” Taliban leaders have promised to attack Afghans who participate, and the dominance of warlords in many regions will surely lead to intimidation and vote buying, as occurred in the election of delegates to the emergency and constitutional Loya Jirgas.

A recent briefing paper by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) notes, “elections could well legitimise the very individuals deemed the most illegitimate by the majority of Afghans.” The paper mentions lessons from other countries that underwent “peaceful elections held in ‘postconflict’ ” situations, such as South Africa, El Salvador, and Mozambique. Polls in each of those countries “were preceded by strong international peace agreements, disarmament, a sound constitution and stable grassroots political movements,” none of which exist in Afghanistan. On the other hand, “elections held in countries before peace was secure, as in Liberia, Angola, and Bosnia legitimised the very forces they were meant to remove from power and sowed the seeds for further conflict.” 24 The possibilities are just as dire for Afghanistan, though the Bush administration rejects this possibility. Zalmay Khalilzad insists: “I am not of the view at this point that elections cannot take place this June, or this summer… There is a way for this to happen.”

According to the director of the AREU, the push for early elections is motivated primarily by “domestic political reasons within the U.S. ” 25 The AREU briefing paper states that Washington’s “enthusiasm for 2004 [Afghan] elections is a result of the Bush administration’s need for a foreign policy and ‘war-on-terror’ success ahead of the November 2004 presidential elections in the U.S., particularly as Iraq appears to be [be]coming less of a success by the day.” The New York Times affirms that, “there is little doubt that President Bush would like to claim an electoral success in Afghanistan as he runs for re-election himself.” According to a January Washington Post article, the “biggest single factor” in Mr. Bush’s election bid will be foreign affairs. “This is the first presidential election perhaps since Vietnam that is going to turn on the way the public views the success or failure of foreign policy,” predicts Mark Snyder, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group. Success in Afghanistan is a benchmark whereby the U.S. electorate can judge Bush’s actions, and Afghan elections would be the most visible sign of U.S. engagement with the country. 26

Ambassador Khalilzad maintains that Karzai, not Bush, would be the one to lose out by delaying elections in Afghanistan. “Khalilzad said Karzai would be…damaged by an election delay, which he said could create a ‘crisis of legitimacy’ if [Karzai’s] transitional mandate ends before the voting takes place.” 27 In other words, if Mr. Karzai is not seen to be duly elected by the majority of Afghans, his illegitimacy will be recognized. Clearly, if Karzai runs an uncontested race with very few people voting, it would also weaken the validity of the elections. But it looks as if the Bush administration is interested in Karzai winning–regardless of the context–in order to impress the U.S. electorate before November.

The AREU lamented that “it seems virtually certain that the [Afghan] elections will be won by those with the greatest power to intimidate voters and to buy their way into power.” In his own way Karzai is as guilty of this as the warlords. While his Washington patrons use their military to engage in “classic counterinsurgency” against residents of the “lawless frontier” areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan to eliminate Taliban influence, the buying of Afghan votes for Karzai is also underway. A $1.6 billion spending package was approved by the U.S. Congress last October to “accelerate success” and “demonstrate to the Afghan people the concrete, visible programs that are improving their lives.” It is certainly better to sponsor reconstruction than destruction, but this assistance is much smaller than required (the Afghan government estimates reconstruction costs at $28 billion over seven years) and is obviously geared toward superficially improving Karzai’s clout before the elections.

In an attempt to salvage his credibility, Mr. Karzai is finally appearing to squelch the power of the warlords, or at least those that defy him. Zalmay Khalilzad was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “Afghan warlords, whom Washington previously tolerated as allies against the Taliban, would be ‘marginalized’ if they continued using guns to impose their will.” 28 In October Karzai passed the Political Parties Law, which “bans political parties from having their own militias or affiliations with armed forces.” The law also bans “judges, prosecutors, officers, and other military personnel, police, and national security staff” from joining a party while still in office. This narrows the spectrum of possible challengers to Karzai’s candidacy. 29 Technically Karzai himself is ineligible to run for office, since the law also forbids parties that “receive funds from foreign sources.” But apparently, the most powerful global empire is not regarded as a “foreign influence.”

While the Bush administration collaborates with its hand-picked Kabul leaders to ensure that neither the Taliban nor the warlords challenge Karzai’s continuance as president, all armed parties (the U.S., the Afghan government, the warlords, and the Taliban) have in common the goal of keeping the elections free from another, more unpredictable influence: the people of Afghanistan. Unless they have guns, those who fight for their rights in Afghanistan are either disregarded or attacked. Student protests have been met with bullets from the Kabul police. Women who assert themselves are ostracized, as was Malalai Joya, a delegate to the constitutional meeting who accused many of her fellow delegates of war crimes. In the middle of her speech, her microphone was shut off, and she was removed from the conference “for her safety.” Celebrated as a hero in her hometown, her calls for justice were ignored by the country’s “representatives” and their foreign masters.

Although Afghanistan ‘s new Constitution asserts the right of freedom of the press, journalists who question the current order are arrested and intimidated. “Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing for Us,” is the title of a Human Rights Watch report, referring to a threat received by an editor who published a political cartoon lampooning Defense Minister Fahim. 30 One story that received some mention in the U.S. press involved the editors of the weekly newspaper Aftab, Mir Hussein Mahdawi and his assistant Ali Reza. The two were arrested last June for “blasphemy” after publishing an editorial entitled “Holy Fascism” criticizing the Afghan warlords and some mullahs for “crimes committed in Islam’s name.” The article denounced many U.S.-backed leaders of the Northern Alliance, including the current Afghan Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili. The journalists were released on orders from President Karzai, but the blasphemy charge still stands. Karzai said he believed in press freedom, but he explained: “It is our job to protect the Afghan people’s…religious beliefs… We will naturally take measures whenever we see that the foundations of the Afghan people’s beliefs are violated. This does not mean a disregard for the freedom of the press, it is rather respect for the freedom of the press.” 31

A Fearful Future

Far from building the “foundations for democratic institutions,” U.S. operations in Afghanistan are an assault on democracy, devastating people’s lives and increasing insecurity. With every violation, the return of the Taliban becomes more likely. Surely the recent statement by Mullah Omar, former Supreme Leader of the Taliban, resonates widely: “The American, shaky transitional government in Afghanistan has completed its two years but so far it has not achieved anything. Where is the democracy that was to accompany peace, freedom, human rights and reconstruction? For Muslims, that fraud democracy is bringing the gifts of killings, bombings, destruction of homes.” 32Washington’s response to such critiques is only more violence and subversion of democracy. The chief interests upheld at the constitutional Loya Jirga this winter were those of the Bush administration and its puppet Hamid Karzai as well as the Afghan warlords who were legitimized officially for the third time. Meanwhile, Afghans continue to wait for reconstruction, justice, and lasting peace.

Since Bush began his “war on terrorism,” the Afghan people have been allowed to choose only between U.S.-backed puppets and a gang of fundamentalist ruffians. An independent, nonviolent grassroots movement advocating true democracy is not one of the options. It is ironic, but expected, that the Pentagon terrorizes villages along the borders with Pakistan in an effort to “fight terrorism” while supporting warlords, most of whom are tyrants, drug lords, and terrorists in their own right. A first step in promoting democracy and stifling terrorism in Afghanistan would be to cut off aid to the Northern Alliance and other Afghan warlords. A second, more difficult step might be to address the root causes of terrorism; namely, deprivation of fundamental rights and anger at an arrogant imperial power.

1. Zalmay Khalilzad, “Afghanistan’s Milestone,” Washington Post, January 6, 2004.
2. “Guerrilla Chiefs to Undercut Karzai,” Christian Science Monitor, December 12, 2003.
3. Sonali Kolhatkar, “In Afghanistan, U.S. Replaces One Terrorist Regime with Another” (Silver City, NM & Washington: Foreign Policy In Focus, October 3, 2003 ).
4. John Sifton, “Flawed Charter for a Land Ruled by Fear,” International Herald Tribune, January 6, 2004.
5. J. Ingalls, “The U.S. and the Afghan Loya Jirga: A Victory for the Puppet Masters,” Z Magazine, September 2002.
6. “All Our Hopes Are Crushed: Violence and Repression in Western Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch vol. 14, no. 7, November 2002.
7. T. Shanker, “Rumsfeld Meets Warlords in Afghanistan,” New York Times, December 4, 2003.
8. P. Constable, “New Strategy Calls for Wooing Some in Taliban,” Washington Post, December 21, 2003.
9. S. Saleem Shahzad, ” U.S. Revives Taliban Tryst in Afghanistan,” Asia Times Online, September 23, 2003.
10. Rama Mani, “Ending Impunity and Building Justice in Afghanistan” (Kabul: AREU), December 2003,
11. RAWA, “Establishing Human Rights and Democracy Is Possible Only with the Destruction of Fundamentalism Domination,” December 10, 2003,
12. In a January 15, 2004 press release, the aid organization CARE cited “more attacks on civilians in the past three months than in the 20 months following the Taliban’s fall.”
13. P. Constable, “Attacks, U.S. Airstrikes Cast a Pall over Progress Toward Constitutional Assembly,” Washington Post, December 8, 2003; P. Haven, ” U.S.: Taliban Would Attack Afghan Council,” Associated Press, December 9, 2003; C. Gall, “U.S. Acknowledges Killing 6 More Afghan Children,” New York Times, December 11, 2003.
14. C. Gall, “In Afghanistan, Violence Stalls Renewal Effort,” New York Times, April 26, 2003; S.A. Achakzai, ” U.S. Troops Provoke Anger, Fear in Afghan Villages,” Reuters, August 19, 2003.
15. B. Bender, “Pakistan Intensifies Aid for U.S. in bin Laden Chase,” Boston Globe, February 21, 2004.
16. Defense Department, “Special Department Of Defense Briefing on Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan,” February 17, 2004,
17. F. Bokhari, “Centralised Presidency in Afghanistan Suits U.S. best,” Gulf News, December 25, 2003.
18. International Crisis Group, “Afghanistan: The Constitutional Loya Jirga” (Kabul/Brussels: ICG), December 12, 2003,
19. W. Massoud, “Karzai Refuses to Compromise as Afghan Assembly Threatened by Boycott,” Agence France-Presse, December 31, 2003.
20. “Last-Ditch Effort Secures Afghan Charter,” Associated Press, January 4, 2004.
21. Ibid.
22. C. Gall, ” Afghanistan’s Constitution Council Adjourns in Disarray,” New York Times, January 1, 2004.
23. “Afghans’ First Stab at Democracy,” Christian Science Monitor, January 6, 2004.
24. AREU Briefing Paper, “Afghan Elections: The Great Gamble” (Kabul: AREU), November 2003.
25. ” U.S., Karzai Push for Afghan Elections Despite Warnings,” Agence France-Presse, January 11, 2004.
26. R. Wright, “Bush Faces a Challenging Year: The Turn From War to Peace,” Washington Post, January 1, 2004.
27. P. Constable, “Afghan Elections Could Be Delayed,” Washington Post, February 17, 2004.
28. P. Constable, “Envoy to Afghanistan is a Force of Nurture,” Washington Post, October 11, 2003.
29. J. Ingalls, “Buying Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan,” Z Magazine, December 2003.
30. “Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing for Us: Human Rights Abuses in Southeast Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch, vol. 15, no. 5. July 2003.
31. Hamid Karzai, press conference, Radio Afghanistan, June 25, 2003 (translated from Dari and Pashto).
32. S. Graham, “Karzai: Bin Laden Alive, Still in Region,” Associated Press, January 31, 2004.

Published by Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), a joint project of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC, online at and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS, online at©2004. All rights reserved.
Recommended citation:
James Ingalls, “The New Afghan Constitution: A Step Backwards for Democracy,” (Silver City, NM & Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, March 2004).
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Production Information:
Writer: James Ingalls
Editor: John Gershman, IRC